Heure d’été, L’ (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Hélène (Edith Scob) invites her three grown children, along with their partners and children, to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday at the family estate. But that isn’t the only reason for the reunion. Hélène is dying and she feels as though she might pass away at any time so she talks to her eldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), about the preparations she had made as well as some of her wishes. Also, she informs Frédéric that, after she dies, it is up to him, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) to determine what should be done to the estate, the extremely valuable paintings inside, and other items that museums and collectors from all over the world wish to have.
“L’heure d’été,” written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is a delightful surprise because even though it is about a group of people closing an important chapter in their lives, speckles of positivity and hope radiate amidst the indecisions, resistance, and sadness that the characters go through, from the moment their mother dies until their once regal but intimate home turns into an empty shell ready for its next inhabitants.
Emphasis is placed on the process. I appreciated that the writer-director has the patience to allow a scene to play out without relying on sentimentality to get the script’s point across. For instance, as Hélène reveals to Frédéric her wishes and recommendations involving the items in the house, the camera glides along with her movements instead of focusing on her face. She steps toward an area of the room, points to an object, tells some facts about it, gives her opinion, and finally onto the next area. It all feels very business-like but we empathize with her because we can understand that if she had approached the idea of letting go from a mother or matron’s perspective rather than that of a realtor, she probably wouldn’t have had the strength to finish what she started.
The siblings, too, are required to think and act outside of sentimentality. The material gives us quick but clear ideas about where they are in their lives. Because of their age differences and they live in different parts of the world, it is only natural to expect that they have different wants and needs. Although I expected otherwise, no one is a villain; no one is so unlikable that we wish for them to get the short end of the stick. These are people who are practical enough to look out for themselves and their families but at the same time are sensitive to each other’s thoughts and feelings. It would have been easy to push these characters to be at each other’s throats, possessed by greed and malice especially since a whole lot of money is involved. Instead, it chooses to pursue a more insightful and quiet avenue. It reminds us that although holding onto a piece of land and keeping rare items is smart from an investment point of view, you are eventually forced to give it all up because no one is allowed to live forever.
Even though I don’t own an estate or have a painting I can show off during posh gatherings, I found the story to be relatable. As a person who likes to save his money more than spend it, my dad always asks me, “How is money going to do you any good when you’re dead?” This question echoed in my head as I observed at Hélène’s aging body, imagined her history (she must’ve been quite a gal—refined, intelligent, but not without a sense of humor), and measured how strongly she has allowed her attachment to things to have defined her identity. I wanted to ask her, given that she has lived a life of privilege, if she had managed to live her entire life on her own terms. We are given clues to formulate our own answers.
Holy Motors (2012)
★ / ★★★★
It is a most misleading sight when Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) walks away from a lavish home as kids stand on rooftops to greet him good morning. The closer he gets to the white limousine, our expectation that he is off to work–most likely business-related due to his attire–is solidified. The assumption that M. Oscar is on his way to a job is correct. The nature of his work, however, is an entirely different breed, the kind that changes every few hours. Today, M. Oscar has nine “appointments,” according to Céline (Edith Scob), the limo driver. Each one requires that he looks and acts different–all of which depend on the needs of the client.
“Holy Motors” is an infuriating, would-be cerebral experience. Although it has plenty of imagination, it sacrifices cohesion and reason for sake of being different. As a result, we sit through so-called appointments that do not make any sense, from M. Oscar resembling a leprechaun (sans the hat) who eats flowers in the cemetery to playing a dying old man in a hotel bed who gets a chance to exchange last words with a woman. The film comes off desultory than dream-like, pretentious than thought-provoking.
Perhaps the intention is to criticize the state of modern film, how each genre has become cripplingly repetitious and stale. After all, the first scene consists of a blind man breaking through a wall and onto a movie theater. The wall, as cliché as it is, works as a metaphor for the limitations that writers and filmmakers create for themselves and therefore their work. Most importantly, it suggests that there is a wall between films and viewers that goes unbroken or unchallenged far too often.
If such is the case, the picture needs to stand on its own and be better than its targets. Since the film is neither this nor that and yet it attempts to be everything, it does not work. It fails to do anything particularly memorable with each assignment. Take M. Oscar playing a beggar in the streets of Paris as an example. While it is a good physical performance, the character is created and disposed of so quickly. There is not enough time for us to get acclimated, ask questions, and really think about what is happening.
Lavant proves in the zone in embodying each character but since the screenplay by Leos Carax does not give us the necessary time to be engaged with what is going on in its universe, the performance is, in many ways, cheapened as well as weakened in terms of emotional impact. With each make-up and costume change, there is a dramatic physical transformation but I never got past the fact that the actor is acting. It is a shame because if the material had been less insular and self-important, it would have been a visual feast as well as a force worthy of challenging our minds.
At least the cinematography is more welcoming. I enjoyed the sights of Paris especially at night and the way the camera follows M. Oscar as he turns into and around corners. But a way a picture looks rarely makes up for its (equally) important deficiencies. A movie may have good visuals but if it all feels hollow, as is the case here, the experience feels not unlike watching an amateur street performance.
Some are quick to make foolish claims that “Holy Motors,” directed by Leos Carax, is a love letter to movie lovers. This is a most unwarranted and outrageous assertion because the film is dead cold toward us. Just because a film is “artsy” or strives to be very different, does not mean it is good. While it does inspire curiosity, it is not thrilling, funny, heart-wrenching, or scary. It does not give us a sense of wonder either. What good is a film if we sit there expressionless?