Carax’s noir dream carries us into the maddest of reveries

Holy Motors/2012/Indomina Releasing/116 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Behind “Holy Motors” – the strange, perverse and entertaining neo-noir film by Léos Carax – lies a near century of movie surrealism: of deliberately fantastic, illogical and sometimes pathological filmmaking in which the cineaste (whether it’s Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren or Carax) tries to dream on screen and carry us into the maddest of reveries.

Here the reveries are mad indeed. A man and a dog wake up in a strange room with a door that opens into a theater showing a silent film. (Something by a Cocteau or a Bunuel?) The day is just beginning. For the rest of the film, we will follow the (apparently) workday rounds of a traveling player named M. Oscar played by the defiantly sullen and unsmiling anti-star and Carax regular Denis Lavant.

M. Oscar is driven around in a silver limousine by a chauffeur named Celine, played by Edith Scob, the actress who played the faceless girl in Georges Franju’s 1960 horror-fantasy classic “Eyes Without a Face.” As Celine takes him all around Paris (at the behest of a mysterious agency represented at one point by Bunuel favorite Michel Piccoli), M. Oscar appears at various places and plays various roles.

M. Oscar impersonates a financier, an old beggar-woman, a motion-capture lover/dancer in a black unitard, a wild sewer-dwelling hooligan named M. Merde, a tense father of a teenage daughter, a hired killer and his victim, a dying old man, and the old lover of a heart-breaking chanteuse played and sung (to the hilt) by Kylie Minogue. At the end of the day, night has fallen, the actor returns home (to an exceedingly weird household) and the limo joins other cars housed in a garage.

“Holy Motors,” beautifully shot by Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape, is a crazy poem about art and actors and their relation to the world. It would make an interesting double feature with David Cronenberg’s somewhat poetic limo movie, “Cosmopolis,” to which Carax’s film’s is slightly superior. Narrative-bound moviegoers will no doubt be incensed at the sheer oddness of “Holy Motors.” Art-lovers (and lovers of French cinema, from the reveries of Georges Méliès and Louis Feuillade on) may be entranced.

Carax is somewhat different than most of the other cinematic mad dreamers. He manages to get producers to give him larger budgets. Not that often, it’s true. “Holy Motors” is his first feature since “Pola X” (1999), and that was his first since “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1991).

When he shows up, though, he’s usually admired. (In French, with subtitles.)

“Holy Motors,” opens today in LA at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre.

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New on DVD, Blu-ray: ‘Skin I Live in’ and ‘To Catch a Thief’

By Michael Wilmington

Antonio Banderas

The Skin I Live In (DVD)/2011/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/117 min.

Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish master of kink and perverse soap opera (“Matador,” “Law of Desire,” “Talk to Her”), here plunges into high Gothic melodrama, with Antonio Banderas as a wealthy and reclusive plastic surgeon, who becomes obsessed with implanting the features of his beautiful, beloved, dead wife on the face of a female prisoner (Elena Anaya) whom he keeps hidden away in his posh isolated home.

Also involved: a mysterious housekeeper who knows some dark secrets (Marisa Paredes) and a raunchy interloper in a tiger suit (Roberto Álamo).

Not for every taste of course – no Almodovar film is – but a good, creepy elegant old-school horror movie worthy of its obvious influences: Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face,” James Whale’s Frankenstein, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. And the reunion of Almodovar and star Banderas, is a felicitous one. At the very least, this film will give you a different slant on Banderas’ “Puss in Boots.” (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Documentary featurettes; Q&A with Almodovar

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Grant and Kelly: One of Hitchcock’s sexiest duos.

To Catch a Thief (Blu-ray)/1955/Paramount/106 min.

Cary Grant is a Riviera cat burglar, framed by another mysterious thief and chased by both the local gendarmerie and his old pals in the Resistance. Grace Kelly is a rich, gorgeous vacationer who can really get those fireworks and colored lights going.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining movies, beautifully shot in Cannes and surrounding locations, with Grant and Kelly making up his sexiest couple, except maybe for Grant and Bergman in “Notorious.”

From the (not too good) novel by David Dodge, scripted by John Michael Hayes. With Jessie Royce Landis, Charles Vanel and John Williams.

Pure – well, a little impure – fun.

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‘Eyes Without a Face’ gives us Guignol, Givenchy and grace

Eyes Without a Face/1960/Champs-Élysées Productions/88 min./in French, with English subtitles

I can’t think of many movies that combine Grand Guignol and Givenchy. So I’m grateful for 1959’s “Eyes Without a Face,” which critic Pauline Kael described as: “perhaps the most austerely elegant horror film ever made.”

Edith Scob stars as the disfigured daughter in "Eyes Without a Face."

It plays at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

Noir and horror, both rooted in German Expressionism, overlap from time to time – the dramatic compositions, intense interplay of light and shadow, and the examination of the human mind’s most nefarious corners.

Director Georges Franju’s film, based on a Jean Redon novel, invites us into a frightening, yet poetic, world in which guilt has tipped Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) into a spiral of insanity. Loaded with darkness and visual style, “Eyes” counts in my book as a borderline noir.

The doctor’s daughter Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) was disfigured in a car accident and lives as a virtual prisoner, hiding behind a tasteful mask and swathed in glimmering Givenchy. Because he was driving the car, the doctor can’t forgive himself. As any devoted and deranged dad would do, he, along with his secretary Louise (Alida Valli), kidnaps young women who resemble poor Christiane, drugs them and attempts to use their faces as replacements. Christiane could then assume a new identity. As you might expect, this is a pretty tall order.

Louise (Alida Valli) does the dirty work.

While Louise isn’t quite a femme fatale, she’s still pretty tough. In the opening scene, for instance, we see her singlehandedly dragging a body from a car and dumping it in the river. And she’s always so charming, not to mention impeccably dressed, when she lures new victims, offering them little favors like a place to stay or great seats at the theater.

But the doctor starts to be outnumbered. The police (Alexandre Rignault, Claude Brasseur, Pierre’s son) get curious and so does Christiane’s former fiancé(François Guérin). More importantly, though, Christiane eventually revolts.

“Eyes Without a Face” left its mark on pop culture inspiring, for instance, Billy Idol’s ballad by the same name from the 1984 album “Rebel Yell.” The film also functions as a political parable with Docteur Génessier representing the evils of fascism. His daughter, though at first subdued, finally throws off her shackles, as in the scene where she releases the snarling, caged dogs and walks along with a dove on her wrist.

It is one of many surreal images, recalling perhaps a De Chirico painting of a deserted piazza, beautifully crafted by Franju, set off by Maurice Jarre’s chilling classical-style music.

Despite his talent, Franju (1912-1987) and his films have not been widely appreciated. Having made his mark with documentaries, he later specialized in poetic thrillers, romances and fantasies (“Judex,” “Thérèse Desqueyroux”). He was also a co-founder, with Henri Langlois, in 1936, of the Cinémathèque Française.

Here’s hoping Saturday’s screening will earn Franju a few more fans.

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‘Eyes Without a Face’ quick hit

Eyes Without a Face/1960/Champs-Élysées Productions, Lux Film/88 min.

Looking good is often a matter of playing up your best features and minimizing flaws. If your flaw is a missing face, however, that’s rather a bind, even for the most resourceful of fashion-forward gals. In “Eyes Without a Face,” Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) addresses the problem with a chic mask and lots of Givenchy, what else? Her father (Pierre Brasseur) has a far more radical idea that calls on his skills as a surgeon.

Director Georges Franju handles the material with grace and restraint. Alida Valli provides excellent support as the mad doctor’s accomplice.

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