Travel to the other side of life

“We’ve been holed up in the apartment for a few weeks now.” In April last year, we’d just eased into our first lockdown, barely beginning to bite.

Normally, hiking would be the escape. Hills, cliffs, mountains, woods. A few trees in the nearby city park had to be enough. Within it, there’s just one spot where the branches meet enough to interrupt the sun, dappling the dirt where dogs dig, and shit, and scramble, and prevent the grass from ever growing over.

So the first attempt to get away was a landscape by proxy: reading, and writing about, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a strange, nervy Thirties thriller whose hero is pursued across pre-war Europe to a bolthole in the Dorset countryside.

Almost a year on and those well-written hills don’t offer the same respite, yet getting to real ones remains out of the question.

Over months, we have folded ourselves into new configurations, adapting to circumstances; lost ourselves in work, music, cookery, calls with friends, new books, old books, a little TV but perhaps not as much as everyone might expect. Movies, though, certainly; always.

Leos Carax’s film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf gave me a escape from trying times a few years ago. I saw his 2012 film Holy Motors a few years after that. And catching up with his work has been one of our lockdown getaways.

Holy Motors won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s award for Best Foreign-Language Film and this is what he said in acceptance:

Hello, I’m Leos Carax, director of foreign-language films. I’ve been making foreign-language films my whole life. Foreign-language films are made all over the world, of course, except in America. In America, they only make non-foreign-language films. Foreign-language films are very hard to make, obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language instead of using the usual language. But the truth is, cinema is a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life. Good night.

Holy Motors is a strange picture. It follows a man, Mister Oscar, around Paris in a chauffeur-driven limousine. In the back of the car is a well-stocked make-up table, props and costumes, and even a minibar. At each of the stops he makes throughout the day, Mister Oscar transforms himself into a different character: these include a beggar woman, a small-time gangster, a fretful father picking his daughter up from a party, a deranged barefoot troglodyte who kidnaps a model from a fashion shoot in a cemetery.

Dialogue suggests that Mister Oscar is an actor, performing for an audience watching him through cameras that today’s miniaturised technology has rendered invisible. Some critics take the movie to be a lament for current changes to the movie business — but the film needn’t be read this way. Other, mysterious things happen: Oscar rounds a corner on his way to an appointment and when the camera follows, he has disappeared. On several occasions he appears quite clearly to die, yet somehow recovers to make his way back to the limousine and his next appointment.

The movie has let us escape for a while precisely because it doesn’t insist on making sense. Is Mister Oscar taking on the real identities of these characters when he steps out of the limousine door? When he is sent to kill a gangster who turns out to be his physical double, both men stab one another, and it’s unclear which of them returns to the car and completes the remaining stops of the day. Mister Oscar spends one sequence as an elderly man on his deathbed, then excuses himself to a grieving relative after he has expired, so that he can make his next appointment. These deaths seem unreal, and yet in another sequence Mister Oscar howls with grief as a former lover kills herself graphically.

Holy Motors is hardly the first film of which you can say it has the power of a dream. That howl of grief feels real even as we’ve been made to wonder whether Mister Oscar – and other “actors” like him, who we see doing similar work – is as indestructible, rubbery, and resilient as a Looney Tunes character.

The movie compels us because of the strange sincerity with which each act is performed; in place of a tight or coherent plot, it hooks together feelings and images. It makes sense not in your head, but at a point three to five centimetres below the breastbone. It has that odd feeling of meeting a stranger on a walk through distant mountains, finding you share no common language, and yet somehow discovering a way to communicate with one another. After all, “Cinema is a foreign language […] created for those who need to travel to the other side of life.”

In an interview at the time of the film’s release, Carax said: “In this world I invented, it’s a way of telling the experience of a life without using a classical narrative, without using flashbacks. It’s trying to have the whole range of human experience in a day.” He gives us an elsewhere, a place of pure escape – not just from the immediate context of our own lives with their rhythms and routines, expectations and limitations, but from the assumption that things have to make some kind of sense.

The movie is reminiscent not just of cinematic predecessors like Buñuel’s Le Fantôme de la liberté, whose linked yet unrelated episodes taunt us with the possibility of coherence, but older traditions too. It’s arguably a cousin to works like Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th century play El gran teatro del mundo, where dead souls are stripped of the roles and identities they had held in life as if they were nothing more than Mister Oscar’s make-up, then judged before the Almighty for their acts “on stage”. The poet and scholar Betty Sue Flowers writes in this way of death as “the bald scenario”, the afterlife being a useful fiction from which to reflect upon and judge our actions, even if we don’t believe in it. Even as Holy Motors refuses this kind of finality, it still offers a perspective that is somehow outside of life – an observation platform from which we can scrutinise existence.

Do these films attract us now, as our escape from the depths of a pandemic, because they serve as rehearsals for death, for loss? Carax’s first feature, Boy Meets Girl, ends in death, as does its follow-up Mauvais Sang; Holy Motors, with its disturbing suicide sequence, is dedicated to Yekaterina Golubeva, Carax’s partner, who had recently died before its making, reputedly by her own hand.

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was also intended to end in a death, in the early drafts of its script, but Juliette Binoche, who was then Carax’s partner, made him change it. (She also broke up with him when she read the ending he had in her mind for her character, the love interest of his onscreen proxy; just to complete the strange dance of art and life, Binoche almost drowned in the Seine during filming, and after parting ways with Carax went on to have a child with one of the production’s scuba divers).

What is written into us that we tell such stories and then somehow find them also playing out in our lives? The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas uses the terms “fate” and “destiny” to reflect on this question.

“A person who is fated,” he writes, “who is fundamentally interred in an internal world of self and object representations that endlessly repeat the same scenarios, has very little sense of a future that is at all different from the internal environment they carry around with them. The sense of fate is a feeling of despair to influence the course of one’s life.”

Against this, Bollas puts the notion of destiny, under which we can imagine ourselves into the future or multiple possible futures, with the sense that we are able, to some degree, to steer the course of our lives.

Rehearsal for death is a strange thing: this event we’ll only go through once, and from which no-one ever returns to help us understand what awaits. (Resuscitation is different, a medical dance which only apparently takes us back and forth over the one-way threshold).

Grief, too, is slippery; however much we experience of it, we can’t be sure that what we’ve learned will prepare or protect us from the shock of the next loss. Bereavement derives from the Old English berēafian, which means “to rob”: each death can steal different treasures from us in different ways, yet sometimes a new loss taunts us by taking the exact same things as the one before – an insolent burglar who comes right back in through that window you thought you’d secured.

The strangeness of these films we’ve been watching, the darkness of them and the light – for these are exuberant, noisy, breathtaking films too, full of dance and magic and music – is precisely what turns them into getaways. They don’t cause us to burrow inward, finding only more of the same; they unwrite the words and repetitions that have filled us through lockdown, the habits and routines that have girded but also constrained us. They dig into the furrows which have been formed by this necessary withdrawal from the world — which we have undertaken precisely to cease the spread of death in a time of plague — and allow us turn over fresh earth.

There, you find space for new stories to be told. And if the space given doesn’t suffice, you figure out how to expand it; to acquire new territory even when your life is restricted to a small corner of the earth. This is what we find in cinema: the country on the other side of life.

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