European Directors and their Stars. Movies reviewed: Holy Motors, Barbara.

Posted in 1980s, Class, Cold War, Cultural Mining, Disguise, documentary, Drama, France, Germany, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 29, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ugh…winter. Bah, humbug. It’s at times like this, when your wastebasket is overflowing with cold-generated used Kleenex, and the streets with knee-deep snowdrifts, it’s at miserable wintery seasons like this that you have to remind yourself about the good parts of city life. And in Toronto, that’s movies.

There’s always something good ouit there, mainstream or obscure, spurred on by local moviegoers and the 70-odd film festivals, from TIFF on down.

So this week I’m looking at two really interesting European movies by great — but not very well-known — directors. These films are also notable in that both directors use actors that were central to earlier films.

Holy Motors, Denis Lavant, Kylie MinogueHoly Motors

Dir: Leos Carax

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older woman, Cecile, his chauffeur (chauffeuse?)

He looks at his papers, enjoys the rides, talks on a cel phone. Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that he’s more than just an average exec. Inside the limo, he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards, which he dons to become the man he’s supposed to play in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, Kylie Minogue’sHoly Motors Denis Lavant Monsieur Merde erstwhile lover, and many others. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man who plays the roles and communicates with Cecile.

In one especially marvelous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood over a unflappably blasé supermodel before carrying her off to an underground hideaway to complete an even more shocking and grotesque transformation. (No spoiler here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

Holy Motors monsieur merde denis lavant 3So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? I don’t think so.

Oscar’s doing this for you and me (the moviegoers, as a performer in this movie. The entire movie is his act. It’s all an illusion, but an enjoyable one.

Denis Lavant (who played the male lead, a busker, in his Carax’s amazing love story Les Amant du Pont Neuf) is back in full form – just incredible. His foil, Cecile (played by veteran actress Edith Scob) is also great. This is a truly weird and incredible movie that has to be seen to be believed. While there are a few site gags that don’t seem to match the humour of the rest of the rest of the movie, it doesn’t detract from the film. It’s a great movie, like no movie you’ve ever seen before.

Nina Hoss Barbara_02_HFBarbara

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s the 1980s in East Germany, and Barbara, a doctor, gets sent down to the countryside for requesting an exit permit.

(A bit of an explanation: after WWII, Germany was divided, with half of it becoming part of the democratic and capitalist West and half a socialist republic siding with the Soviet Bloc. Berlin – once the capital – was also divided into sectors occupied by the military of the allies — the UK, the US, France and the Soviet Union.

In the early 60s they put up a wall to prevent the East Berliners from entering West Berlin. Berlin became a city divided, like the two Germanys.)

Getting back to the movie… Dr Barbara Woolf (Nina Hoss) is a doctor from East Berlin. She’sJasna Fritzi Bauer Barbara_11_HF a stern, punctual no-nonsense professional who can’t stand her new, second-rate provincial hospital. She is also extremely beautiful, given to black eyeliner, her blond hair tightly pulled back. She is stuck in the countryside because she filed a request to move to the West.

East Germany is riddled with all-powerful intelligence agents constantly spying on everyone. Life is awful, and everyone wants to get out, to flee to the west for freedom. She thinks Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) the friendly doctor she works with is spying on her, and she is frequently visited in her crummy apartment by sinister communist intelligence agents looking for clues in her bodily orifices.

Nina Hoss BARBARA  Regie Christian PetzoldAt the hospital, there are constantly patients being dropped into the hospital after being beaten up by police for trying to escape. It’s a building filled with strange creaks, bangs and thuds, and desperate teenaged runaways looking for help She feels for them, especially young Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) a juvie who is abused at her work detail. Meanwhile, with the help of a gallant, handsome lover from the west, she is planning her getaway to freedom. They also meet for secret trysts in the woods and to pass on information.

Everything’s quite cut and dry, right? East is evil, the west is good.

The thing is, it’s not quite so simple. The spies aren’t big time villains, just low-key locals with their own problems. And she’s beginning to like her co-doctor Andre. The western heroes may just be self-centred douches, not lovers of freedom. And Barbara herself, begins to question her own motives. Is her plot to escape just self serving? And who is more important: herself or her patients?

All of the actors, especially Hoss, are great, and fascinating to watch.

This is another great movie by Petzold, a minimalist, formalistic director from the so-called Berlin school. I’ve seen three of his movies now, including Jerichow (also starring Nina Hoss) a sort-of a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. All of his movies are terrific, and I believe they are all filmed in the former East Germany, along the distinctive windy, northern coastline.

Holy Motors is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Barbara opens there today. Check your local listings. If you haven’t seen the beautiful TIFF Bell Lightbox yet – it’s a movie theatre a museum and a restaurant – now’s a good time to drop by and take a look. Also playing this week at HotDocs are two great documentaries about urban America: the Central Park Five and Detropia.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

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