Holy Motors (2012): Unfolding the Opening Scene


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Those of us who have ever found the willpower to open a book will most likely be accustomed to the presence of a preface or an introduction; something that frames the story that follows and explicitly introduces the narrative to its readers. Film rarely takes time to speak to its audience like this, and therefore movies are often forced to make the most of the opening scene. Leos Carax’s infamous confuser Holy Motors delivers one of the weirdest, most significant opening scenes.


The first few shots and lines of a movie often announce the film’s atmosphere, implicitly show the narrative’s broad lines and introduce important character arcs. Holy Motors’ start doesn’t introduce any plot, neither does it show a character that is in the film itself. At first sight, the scene seems incoherent and irrational, and the main character of these first few minutes never comes back. However, it is exactly this that forms the promise for the chaotic movie, devoid of any coherence or rationality, that is introduced to us as Holy Motors.

The opening credits are interrupted by some short fragments of black and white early film; we see a naked man running, jumping and throwing something on the ground (a brick?). These shots seem empty in themselves, but warn us that the film isn’t oblivious about its existence as cinema. This feeling is only confirmed when we suddenly see a crowd in a theater. The light comes from the back of the crowd, and we mostly see the silhouettes of the seated members. We hear the disembodied sound of traffic, footsteps, someone screams “no” three times, a gunshot, the horn of a boat, seagulls. We can’t locate the source of the sound, and can only see that the crowd in the theater can’t see it either, for their eyes are closed. Are they sleeping? Are they dead?

 

 

The sound of the boat and seagulls continue as we suddenly find ourselves in someone’s room. A man in pajamas gets up from bed and immediately lights a cigarette, which leads us to think that he wasn’t asleep at all. He turns on the light and starts drifting around the room. The insanely dedicated viewers will now have noticed that the man is portrayed by none other than Leos Carax, the director of the very film we are discussing right now! Apparently he wears these sunglasses all the time.¹ Carax’s cameo naturally raises a problem of identity. Is he portraying a character in the film or is he ‘just’ Carax? And if we say he’s only being himself, he is being the director onscreen inside the film’s fantastical world. If he is, is he trying to speak to his audience in any way? Then what is he saying?

In Holy Motors‘ press kit Carax is asked about the film’s peculiar prologue.² He describes the remarkable character choice of Holy Motors‘ introduction.

“So I decided to begin the film with this sleeper who wakes up in the middle of the night and finds himself in his pajamas in a large cinema filled with ghosts. I instinctively called the man – the dreamer in the film – Leos Carax. And so I played him.” (12)

When he thinks of a dreamer in the film, Carax apparently thinks of himself. The sequence that commences after the dreamer leaves his bed, is certainly constructed from dream logic. The stage of the scene is a one-room labyrinth, with which the spectator is constantly deceived and confused. As the dreamer slowly follows the wall and the camera follows him, we come across a door with, seemingly, a window to another room, but as he walks past it, and his movement implies he is looking through the window, he is (and we are) met by his reflection. However, even in front of the mirror, the dreamer looks through it, tries to look around the corner of the suggested window. Then he walks on, turning, and faces a window. The dreamer and we are confronted with the outside world, for the first time, represented by an airport by night, a plane landing. Suddenly we can make sense of the disembodied sounds we first heard, in the cinema as well as in the dreamer’s room. We figure that they probably come from outside, there’s still something off – why is there a boat and seagulls in the middle of an airport? – but the sound is closer to a source than before. The dreamer continues his journey, and then faces the fourth wall. The wallpaper shows a forest, reminds of some late-medieval paintings. The dreamer expects to find something inside the wall, he feels around, almost embraces it. He finds a hole, his finger transforms into a tool and the dreamer opens a hidden door. Carax holds the power to break the fourth wall.

But before we follow Carax into the unknown, let’s take a moment to appreciate the cinematic qualities of the previous sequence. How does one make a labyrinth of a square bedroom? How to make such a room as confusing as possible? Holy Motors shows us that one does not necessarily achieve this with special effects, explicit hallucinations of the dreamer or severe changes in edit. The confusion of this opening scene is a serene confusion, and is only achieved by approaching reality (except for Carax’s finger of course). The room’s individuality is emphasized by the illusion of plurality. The mirror seems to show another room, in it a chair we didn’t see before, and the dreamer, by a certain movement of his physique, sustains this illusion. The windows and the outside world they show are undermined by the representation of a forest in the wallpaper of the next surface, their contrast accentuated by the two-dimensional surface of the trees. The slow movement of the camera virtually shows one wall at a time, and renders the room fragmented and shows the explicit absence of the room’s totality.

Carax moves through the broken forest, enters a new space through the emergency exit and finds himself on the balcony of the cinema we saw before. The balcony is empty, every seat beneath the dreamer is filled with other dreamers. Carax stands above them, looks upon them, and, it seems, thereby gives the most explicit introduction possible. The filmmaker enters the film’s domain, even crosses the projection of the film during his way in, and looks out over its audience. The film can begin, and now we know it’s going to be a great ride.


¹ Kohn, Eric. “Q&A: Leos Carax Explains ‘Holy Motors’ and Why He Wants to Make a Superhero Movie“. Indiewire. October 15th 2012.

² Frodon, Jean-Michel. “Interview with Leos Carax” (PDF). Holy Motors press kit. Wild Bunch. 2012.

The Revenant (2015): Observers of Solitude


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There we were, our buttocks clenched in astonishment and horror from the past two and a half hours, knowing The Revenant was going to end soon. Then something strange happened. Breathing heavily, the main character Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is looking straight at the camera, straight at us, just for a short moment, before the ending credits set in and his disembodied breathing continues for a while. We are left wondering what happened. What did Glass’s facial expression say? (Spoilers ahead)


There has been a lot of speculation and discussion regarding the consequences of The Revenant‘s last shot, up to the point that it virtually has become an equal of Inception‘s spinning top. The most logical explanation I’ve found was provided by Screenprism‘s Jeff Saporito, who, in a short article on the subject, argues that Glass “accepts his mortality, yet he will not invite his death”, which he cleverly backs up with quotes from the film. However, the continuation of the story shouldn’t be regarded as important as it is by many viewers. Most of The Revenant‘s story is quite finished: it’s not that relevant whether Glass dies or not, because he got his revenge and simultaneously learned some valuable lesson. Last scenes like those of The Revenant or Inception trick us into thinking that it might be important to know what happens to Leonardo DiCaprio, by leaving something unfinished. We can’t handle not knowing how it’s going to end, but there are as many possible endings as there are interpretations of the story and so, basically, there is no answer to the question the film’s ending poses.

 

 

Far more interesting than the narrative effect is the cinematic effect of this notorious last shot. In the very same article Screenprism‘s Jeff Saporito aims to invalidate a widespread interpretation of Hugh Glass breaking the fourth wall:

“Breaking the fourth wall involves a character acknowledging the presence of the audience, drawing attention to the reality that they are players in a cinematic environment. Glass does no such thing — his look does not imply awareness that we are watching in a movie theater.” (Link)

Saporito proceeds by claiming that Glass doesn’t see the camera, but something greater than himself, “life itself or a higher being”. According to him, DiCaprio doesn’t look at the audience, but the audience looks into “the soul of Hugh Glass”.

I’d like to argue that breaking the fourth wall is very much what director Iñárritu is allowing to happen in the last seconds of The Revenant. With looking into the camera, no matter what his facial expression might imply, Hugh Glass acknowledges the very presence of the camera and thus breaks the fourth wall in reflecting on the artificiality of the film. There is no more direct way in movies to reflect on the medium than have a character look into the camera. Furthermore, this last shot might be the most obvious, but is not the only instance in which the camera suddenly plays an important role in a scene. We see Glass breathing into the camera more than once and Iñárritu allows the lens to be covered with condensate. When the protagonist is carried by the violent waters of the river, the camera – another camera than the one used in the rest of the film – has as much a hard time not drowning as Glass. Even the movement of the camera in some of The Revenant‘s scenes, especially in one of the first scenes in which the men of the fur trading expedition are attacked by an Arikara party, is so unnatural for the audience that we cannot ignore the fact that the use of the camera is very much emphasized. The following excerpt shows the presence of the film’s technicality perfectly.

 

Unfortunately, the selected fragment has been removed from YouTube

 

The camera seems to be a person in itself, walking at the same pace and in the same lines as the characters in the scene, looking at essential events, as if turning its head, all in one shot. The movements of the eye through which the audience perceives the event places the spectator in the middle of the fight – no 3D or IMAX required – and implies the existence of the person controlling that eye. Clearly most of The Revenant is shot with a wide-angle objective, and with the movements the camera makes in this particular scene, the wide-angle distorts the surroundings in an unnatural way. This creates a strange tension between pulling the audience into the film with person-like movements of the camera and alienate the audience from the film through the use of unusual angles.

All in all these effects of the camera are symptoms of a discreet kind of metafiction. The question is: what role does this reflection on itself play in The Revenant? The camera’s oddities, especially when Hugh Glass roams the wilderness in isolation, pose the protagonist’s solitude as rather ambiguous, because with the camera clearly present in his struggle, his confinement becomes strangely simulated. The camera is a merciless bystander, only observing Glass’s painful endeavor and never interfering, which displays the central odyssey as far more disturbing, damaging and unsettling.

Amidst The Revenant‘s beautiful cinematography, amazing acting and brilliant storyline, is the ominous, haunting observer – not only the camera, but the audience as well. We watch as Glass takes on his crippling journey, and we are unable to help. When Glass, in the last seconds of this amazing film, looks back at the camera, it’s as if he finally fights back, confronting us with our disturbing role as spectator.


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Anomalisa (2015): Representing Real Life


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Charlie Kaufman is certainly no stranger to metafiction, bringing us, among other extremely weird movies, Adaptation, a film about a writer whose screenplay, its literary inspiration, and reality become weirdly intertwined and start acting all Nicolas Cage-y. In Adaptation the degree of metafiction is dependent on strange plot developments and scenarios. Anomalisa, which Kaufman directed with stop-motion master Duke Johnson, shows its self-consciousness not only through plot and storyline, but through its form and appearance.


Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation film, but possesses the realism of live-action. It does not present itself as a caricature of real life, as most animation does, but delivers a rather good job reflecting it. The fact that the sets look very real and the story takes place in ordinary everyday places works towards the balance between ‘real’ and ‘fiction’, which is a strange dynamic in Anomalisa‘s case. Animation is defined by the abscence of absolute representation, while in this particular film the resemblance with actual people and places is so strange, uncanny even, that the audience is almost obligated to submit to disbelief. Anomalisa does not conceal the fact that it is a mere representation of real life, while many live-action movies do, but simultaneously it does represent it so extraordinarily well.

A great example of this strange dynamic is the already infamous scene in which Michael and Lisa make love. I dare to say that it is one of the most realistic sex scenes ever shown in cinema, not only because it is very awkward for the characters as well as the spectator, but also because it is actually quite explicit. Anomalisa‘s audience is doomed to be shocked by live cunnilingus preformed on and by clay puppets. It is in this scene that the collision between fiction and reality is most obvious. Anomalisa is an animation; we expect it to be friendly, appropriate for all ages and above all not too close to reality. Yet, we are presented a film that blurs the line between animation and live-action by its stunning visuals and realistic acting, that is approaching and questioning lifelike situations. This is most apparent when we are watching sexual intercourse between two ‘people’, knowing it does a very accurate job of representing real life, while also noting that it is so different than the sex scenes usually shown by cinema and television.

 

 

Furthermore, the unlikely course of the plot is taking the attention of the spectator from the events in the plot to its structure. About halfway through the film – and I would like to warn the reader for spoilers here – is a sequence which satisfies our hunger for a linear and coherent plot. The entire film we ask ourselves why the faces of the clay puppets are so obviously made out of two segments that can be taken off of their skull. We wish to see what is beneath the artificial faces, and eventually, our wish is granted: Michael’s face falls off. Suddenly the story gets a very Kaufman twist, and those who are familiar with his previous productions know that they are in for a treat. Except, the sudden strange but seemingly right acceleration in events turns out to be a mere dream of the main character. Feel the film laughing in your face.

After the dream sequence the story continues in a rather straight-forward way. The film ends without an ending, and all we know at the end of the film is that – spoiler again – we were in Michael’s mind all along and he was a very, very lonely man. Pretty unsatisfying, but pretty cool as well, because, to put it in a simple way: it seems that Kaufman is messing with the image the average cinephile has of him and ventures far beyond the audience’s expectation. In terms of weird: the only way Kaufman could go was backwards, and Anomalisa unexpectedly turned out to be a rather ‘normal’ (compared to Synecdoche, New York or Being John Malkovich, at least) and unsatisfying but beautiful story. It all results in a critical reflection on itself: “Sometimes there is no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself”.


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