Cosmopolis vs. Holy Motors

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“These stretched limousines that fill the streets; I’ve been wondering, where are they parked at night?” This is a question posed by Robert Pattinson’s character in ‘Cosmopolis’. The answer to this question can be found in the last scene of ‘Holy Motors’. What do these two films have in common? Both premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Both films span the course of a single day. The central characters in both pictures are very wealthy and spend their day being driven around in their stretch limo. And, of course, there are schedule stops and detours along the way. In theory, this would make for an interesting double feature. Unfortunately, only one of these two movies gets it right.

Let’s start with the one that doesn’t work. ‘Cosmopolis’ is the latest film from controversial director David Cronenberg (who I’m a big fan of). Based on the novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, the film follows Robert Pattinson’s character, a young Wall Street billionaire. It is set almost entirely in his limo during the course of a fateful day. He runs into one traffic jam after another. After all, the President of the United States is in the city, there’s an anarchist riot, and a funeral for a contemporary hip hop artist. People step in and out the limo. He occasionally steps out of the car to meet his wife who doesn’t want to have sex with him. The women who do want to have sex with him enter the limo.

“The urge to destroy is a creative urge.” The characters in ‘Cosmopolis’ speak in epigrams about fate, destiny, revolutions, the free market, the intersection of man and technology; the film fulfills an entire Philosophy undergraduate curriculum in the course of two hours . There is a precision to the dialogue which I admired. The characters here are smart – they speak to each other in a highly structured way – a way that no one in real life speaks. Unfortunately, it is also pretentious, boring, and everything transpiring on the screen keeps the viewer at a distance. I didn’t care at all about anything that happened to R Pats. But, shouldn’t I? When the film’s main character is being targeted by an assassin, shouldn’t I care if he lives or dies? The final confrontation between Pattinson and his assassin (played by Paul Giamatti) feels like its own separate movie. It’s a very talky sequence that goes on for thirty minutes (and feels even longer).  

There will be ‘Twilight’ fans that enter this movie to see Robert Pattinson. Their attention spans will be tested. “Where’s Bella? Where’s Renesmee?” The casting choice of Robert Pattinson is this role is a curious one. The verdict is still out on him. In every role he picks, he plays a distant, non-responsive character. I wonder if he is this boring in real life? I’d like to see him in a comedy – this could demonstrate his range as an actor. That being said, and despite the fact that I didn’t like ‘Cosmopolis’, I do think this is a step in the right direction for R Pats. With ‘Bel Ami’, ‘Little Ashes’, and ‘Water For Elephants’, he is clearly choosing non-commercial movies outside of the ‘Twilight’ series, which thankfully, has now come to a conclusion. If he continues to choose roles like these and work with interesting directors, he won’t be typecast as Edward forever.  

‘Holy Motors’ is Leox Carax’s first film in twelve years. At the start, the central character played by Denis Lavant appears as a rich financier type. He slips into the back of a huge limo and is driven through the streets of Paris by his driver Celine (Edith Scob). Inside the limo is a dressing room consisting of costumes, props, and make-up. His dossier contains nine appointments. To give you an example of the sort of assignments he goes on – well, he dresses up as an old woman and pretends to be homeless. In one sequence, he becomes a Tasmanian devil-man who disrupts a fashion shoot in the cemetery, kidnaps the model, and hides out with her in an underground lair. In another sequence, he plays an actor wearing a full-body stocking dotted with motion captures sensors and performs a bizarre sex act with a woman in a black studio. All sorts of cray-cray happens.

‘Holy Motors’ is a most peculiar experience – a film of an unclassifiable genre. Or a cinematic capsule consisting of multiple genres. What the hell does it all mean? The opening shot is of a movie theatre audience gazing into the screen ahead of them. We then see a man (Carax) waking out of bed, then walking towards the room of a wall – the wallpaper resembles a forest. He is able to unlock the door with a key that grows out of his fingers. This leads him to the aforementioned movie theatre where we now meet Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant). Is this a movie? Is this a dream? Is this a movie circumscribed within a dream? Or is the dream circumscribed within the movie? I don’t know.

There is a Lynchian feel to ‘Holy Motors’ at the start. But soon enough, the films develops into its own thing; establishes its own tone and rhythm with unforeseeable stops along the journey. It is intended to be episodic – a series of vignettes tailor-made to display the showmanship of a fearless performer. I think this is a movie for true fans of cinema – yes, some of the material is morbid, but what ‘Holy Motors’ does well is communicate the joy of filmmaking. Peter Greenway once said that “Cinema is far too rich and capable a medium to be merely left to the storytellers.” I think Carax would agree – he’s crafted a film that contains a story if you want one, and doesn’t if you don’t.

Lavant is splendid (and in a way, he is the film); I can’t believe that he didn’t win the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his work here. The award went to Mads Mikkelson for ‘The Hunt’ (a terrific performance, but Lavant’s is unquestionably the actorlier of the two). I praised Tom Hanks and Halle Berry for stretching themselves in ‘Cloud Atlas’ – a movie that required them to play six vastly different characters situated in segments ranging from the 1700s to the 2300s. While this picture may not be as ambitious in scope, it still presents the same (if not greater) opportunity for its central performer – to be able to embody nearly a dozen separate identities, whereby each segment (or “assignment”) consists of a separate film genre. And while ‘Cloud Atlas’ was a complicated film, it was still easier to identify a thread of narrative between the alternating segments. Don’t even bother with ‘Holy Motors’.

I found ‘Cosmopolis’ to be an academic exercise. It has a fully functioning brain, but there was no soul. Conversely, ‘Holy Motors’ was a joyous ode to cinema – a film that seems too weird to exist, but works in wonderfully mysterious ways. QED.

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