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Holy Motors & American Buñuel

December 12, 2012

My current pick for the best movie of 2012 — and I do not expect it to be dislodged — is Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax and starring Denis Lavant. It’s a big movie that wants a big screen and I would urge everyone to see in a theater, though you might have a tough time with that. Here in Charlottesville the last show was on Thursday. If I were to write a blurb for it I might go with “Holy Motors IS Cinema” and then sign my name Jean-Luc Godard or D. W. Griffith or something.  It is a fantastical movie about movies, a movie about movie acting, a movie that exemplifies what movies can be — which is anything their makers have enough boldness and imagination to put on a screen. Carax has those qualities and he goes all out with them, as does Lavant, who also brings his remarkable physicality. Nothing is held back, the film just keeps on exploring its own possibilities in every direction until the end credits roll. It is truly exhilarating, and more can you ask from a movie, or any work of art, than exhilaration?

The other movie in this post is just one I happened to see around the same time (on DVD, but you can also watch on Youtube, with French subtitles). But if you want a segue I can mention that two of the actors in Holy Motors have also appeared in films by Luis Buñuel: Edith Scob was in The Milky Way while Michel Piccoli had roles in Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de jour, The Milky WayThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire. Buñuel must have really liked something about him.

Released in 1960, The Young One is one of Buñuel’s less known films. Undeservedly so: I think it can stand with his best. Written with blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Hugo Butler and made in Mexico, it is set on an island somewhere off the coast of the American South. A black jazz musician fleeing a rape accusation lands there, where he runs into the island’s only inhabitants, a gamekeeper and the granddaughter of his assistant, who died the night before. What follows is a drama revolving around race, but also around the budding sexuality of the young girl and the lust she inspires. It is kind of a message movie and also a bit of an exploitation flick but still in the end the work of Buñuel. Yet he keeps his touch light. Part of what fascinates me about The Young One is how free it is of the obvious Buñuelisms: the surrealism, absurdism, black humour, satirical jabs at the bourgeoisie and Catholic Church, the amused but nasty take on humanity. What people today would call his brand. He can do quite well with these trademarks, but they can become pretty cheap pretty fast, making him the kind of filmmaker who elicits knowing smirks from his audience. In this film Buñuel holds back, he gives it to us straight. The thing could almost be the product of Hollywood at its most earnest. But not quite. He still gets in a few characteristic touches, pleasingly snuck in. And in the space between a typical Buñuel film and a socially conscious Hollywood picture about race relations you get something you don’t expect from either: fully formed complex characters given their breathing room. You also get to see that Buñuel was just an excellent director, quite apart from his brand. This movie is always giving a bit extra, something a little more interesting and satisfying than the conventions it works with demand. In a more just world it would be considered a classic.

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