Life, art, death – and Kylie

Watching Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, a dark and gloriously eccentric French fable about life, death and matters beyond, I became more and more convinced of its likely ontogeny. In a parallel universe Cosmopolis has committed hara-kiri (as it should, condemned for cataleptic artistic nullity) and out have tumbled these extraordinary, multicoloured viscera. There is no way to be delicate about genius. These living, dancing innards, as choreographed by Carax, represent the movie that David Cronenberg’s should have been.

Carax made the tenebrously romantic Pola X and the love-and-death-obsessed Les Amants du Pont Neuf. He is unafraid of life’s morbid structures and humanity’s disturbing foibles and functions. Among the identities donned and doffed by the hero of Holy Motors (Denis Lavant, Carax’s favourite lead), a millionaire and serial disguise artist chauffeured through Paris one day/night in a white stretch limousine, are a dying old man, a pair of twin assassins, a movie motion-capture mime artist writhing in erotic pas de deux with a female partner, and a lecherous, scatological demon of the sewers called Monsieur Merde.

If there are seven basic stories in the world, this is the one about the mutant in us all. We have no firm idea why the hero performs this presumably diurnal labour of multi-metamorphosis, exiting his car for each new cameo, though a Dantesque circle-of-worldly-hell theory is suggested by the enigmatic prologue. Carax himself, rising from bed, feels his way to a tree-frescoed wall – “In the middle of life we are in a dark wood” – and through that into a cinema: the world of visions beyond reality. Soon Lavant, with that face of a pumice-complexioned, goblin-like Chaplin, is in his motorised green room preparing the day’s disguises. He confers with chauffeuse Edith Scob. (Note for intertextualists: the young Scob was the masked surgery victim in Franju’s 1959 horror classic, Eyes without a Face.) After that we go through the stations of transformation, each endowed with the perfect, baffling logic of a dream or nightmare.

The protagonist might be a hired android living out the fears and fantasies of an unknown master. (Michel Piccoli appears in the limo for a brief, mysterious colloquy). He might be the existential Everyman in us all, auditioning for our roles before the curtain clatters down. Or perhaps he just symbolises the way life on our planet has become a set of random narratives watched by all (CCTV, reality television) and explicable to none.

Near the end Kylie Minogue, no less, has a song number dressed and coiffed to resemble the late Jean Seberg, that Breathless darling and first heroine of the French New Wave who gave up her own breath in a mystery suicide. (She was found dead in a car.) The Kylie sequence is one epoch’s triste wave to another. At the movie’s close, after its hypnotic alternations between the melancholy and the murderous, the elegiac and the convulsive (comically crowned by the hilarious episode of supermodel-abduction by lubricious M. Merde), the limo joins its companions in a garage of the night. In a hushed, covert mumble like that of a school dormitory, the cars talk to each other. We are borne back to Cosmopolis. In that film a character said: “I wonder where all the limos go at night.” Here is his answer. They go to a better movie: one where art, lyricism, sadness and rumbustious invention have happily exhausted them for a good night’s rest.

Ever since The Terminator, sci-fi assassins have had the time-travel equivalent of a free bus pass. Hop on in the future; hop off in the present; hit the victim du jour; catch the return bus. (“I’ll be back” is the limit of these super-goons’ communication powers.) Looper is a bit different. The bus pass provides for quarries not killers. The condemned man, hogtied with a sack over his head, gets a free ride from the 2070s to the 2040s to be knocked off. The “looper”, or executioner, is a lad like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, quick-triggered and in his case made up weirdly to resemble a young Bruce Willis. Weirdly until the older Bruce himself enters, with his head in a sack ...

There is more to follow, much more, in this hard-striving dystopian epic from writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick). By the time he has stirred in telekinesis, remote-control necrotising fasciitis (Google it) and Emily Blunt as a farmwoman with a shotgun and a clue-providing name – “Sarah,” get it, Terminator junkies? – we are begging for a free travel pass to Jane Austen Time. Tea, muffins and conversation, the simple life. Instead we have gore, gizmos and gurning music. A for effort. C and see-me for results and how to improve them for the DVD.

A lot of the German film Barbara is like a TV medical soap. The thirtysomething chief doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) is a hunk with bedroom eyes. The new woman doctor (Nina Hoss), arriving at the rural hospital in 1980 East Germany, is a blonde bombshell, albeit of a certain age. (All the better for stories to tell of an eventful or beleaguered past.) Will they fall in love? What does Doc Barbara have to hide? Who will save and protect the pregnant teenage girl (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), escaped from a socialist work camp, who all but wears the sign “plot catalyst” around her neck?

The film came close to winning the Berlin Golden Bear, never mind its fleeting resemblances to an ex-DDR ER. Writer-director Christian Petzold (Yella) crafts sleek, thoughtful dramas about everyday peril. Barbara would be less distinguished without its Barbara. Nina Hoss’s cold, edgy beauty begrudges easy sympathy. She wears her taut-boned looks like a Hitchcock blonde moving in on more serious nightmares. East German life must have been like this – hour-to-hour scary – as the small-town Stasi pay their unannounced calls or the Berlin boyfriend drives down for a secret tryst, bringing a perilous package (escape money?) and a despairing farewell. A doctor who loves saving people must decide if the first call on her care is herself. The film is tensely watchable; I only wish, to reinvoke a master, there was more Hitchcock. In two brilliantly unsettling scenes at a windblown roadside planted with rocks and a cross – so surreally gusty that a wind-machine must have been used – the imagery leap ups, flame-like, to meet the intensity of the scripted drama.

Who says political satire is dead? Most of the audience for The Campaign will say it. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis try to pump life into this pulse-free comedy about corrupt electioneering in the Deep South. We get only a few nerve-twitches as unctuous incumbent congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell with tanned smile and toupee) confronts surprise challenger Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a squeaky, excitable, folksy-honest family man who wants to be James Stewart to Ferrell’s Claude Rains. You may all be too young to have seen Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). You are not too young to be warned against seeing Mr Huggins Goes Nowhere and Drags an Unhappy Audience with Him.

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