PLOT: Anton is a lowly, mistreated assistant at a bathhouse run by his blind father; he falls in love with Eva, the daughter of a sea captain. His real estate developer brother wants to tear down the bathhouse, and also seeks the hand of Eva. After a piece of rubble falls from the ceiling and kills Eva’s father while he’s swimming in the pool, an inspector gives the family a few weeks to bring it up to code or face demolition.
Tuvalu was Veit Helmer’s debut feature after making six shorts.
The movie was a true international production: director Helmer is German, male lead Denis Lavant is French, female lead Chulpan Khamatova is Russian, and (based on his accent) primary antagonist Terrence Gillespie (in his only known performance) is American. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: While there are some great candidates, from the cavernous Turkish bath itself to Eva’s nude swim with her pet goldfish, we’ll go with the two dream sequences. While the rest of the movie is shot monochromatically, the characters dream in tropical color: specifically, in a negative-image palette saturated in pinks and pale pastel blues, with gold trim.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Blind lifeguard; skinny-dip with goldfish; hat crosswalk
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak Expressionist world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences along with the instinctual oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness.
PLOT: A drug-addicted derelict falls in love with a newly homeless painter who is slowly losing her eyesight.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a conventional (by European arthouse standards) romance with a few mildly surreal adornments. It’s not Hollywood, but Bridge wouldn’t lead anyone to suspect that Leos Carax had something as thoroughly weird as Holy Motors in his future, either.
COMMENTS: While the French have a stereotypical reputation as the world’s greatest lovers, a survey of their movies reveals that they are also the world’s greatest cynics about love. They specialize in a particular type of romantic story: tales of obsessive, destructive passion they call “amour fou.” You can see archetypal examples of amor fou (which translates as “mad love” but also carries the connotation “foolish love”) in works like Jean-Luc Godard‘s Pierrot le Fou (1965), Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour Fou (1969), and more recently in the biting Love Me If You Dare (2003).
Far from groundbreaking in its narrative attitude, Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge falls well within the amour fou tradition. Bald, wiry, limping, and covered in the recurring scabs of the young clochard, the chamelonic Denis Lavant is Alex, a sometime fire-eating gymnast and full-time homeless drunk. Lying in the road, left for dead, he is sketched by nearsighted artist Michèle (Binoche). When they later wind up sharing neighboring concrete benches at nighttime on the Pont-Neuf (which is closed for construction), he falls for her. Although he shares his wine and a precious celebration with her, it quickly becomes apparent that Alex has no idea how to love someone unselfishly. He maneuvers to keep Michele away from any return to her previous life of privilege, eventually resorting to actions with deadly consequences. Binoche’s character remains more mysterious; she comes from a prosperous background, but has chosen to abase herself the face of her oncoming blindness. Previous heartbreak also factors in. She promises to fill Alex in on her backstory but never fully does so; we must piece together information, but we are left to fill in some blanks. In fact, a major event we witness in her story is contradicted by a later revelation, leaving us even more confused.
Their love story, then, is at the same time novel and familiar: an old tale of foolish love enacted by new players. The movie’s main pleasures come when Carax indulges his experimental moods in the central section: the camera reels through a Bastille day parade like a drunk; we see a soused Alex and Michèle lying in a gutter, shrunk to the dimensions of trash. The bravura sequence that everyone remembers shows the lovers drunkenly dancing across the bridge as fireworks burst behind them, with the music changing from a polka to a waltz to a rocker every couple of seconds. It’s the kind of scene a movie can hang its hat on, and a director can make a reputation with.
The government allowed Carax to film on the Pont-Neuf, but the movie took so long to make (three years) that permission expired. To finish the story Carax built a massive replica of the bridge in the countryside. This extravagance led to the film’s estimated budget of $28,000,000, which made it one of the most expensive French films ever produced to that time. Furthermore, due to disputes with distributors Lovers did not premier in the U.S. until 1999, eight years after completion. The movie’s finances were even more snakebitten than its protagonists’ romantic prospects, but like them, the filmmakers soldiered on madly. Perhaps it’s cinema fou.
PLOT: A man wakes up and walks through a secret panel in his bedroom wall that leads him into a cinema. Next we meet “Mr. Oscar,”who drives around Paris in a limousine taking on nine “assignments” which require him to become an accordion player, a hitman, and fashion model-abducting leprechaun, among other personae. After Mr. Oscar’s night is over, his chauffeur drives the limo back to a huge car lot labeled “Holy Motors,” where hundreds of similar vehicles are stored.
Holy Motors was Leos Carax’ first feature film since 1999’s Pola X.
Leos Carax is a pseudonym for Alexandre Oscar Dupont. In most of Carax’ other movies, Denis Lavant plays a lead character named “Alex.” Here he plays a character named “Mr. Oscar” (a name which is itself hidden inside the pseudonym leOS CARax).
The flower-eating leprechaun character, “Merde,” first appeared in Carax’ segment in the omnibus movie Tokyo! (2008).
The role of Mr. Oscar was specifically written for Lavant.
Carax originally wanted to credit Michel Piccoli (who is difficult to recognize under his makeup) under a pseudonym, but word of the actor’s involvement in the project was leaked.
Carax says he does not like to shoot on digital film, but did so because he found it made fundraising easier.
Holy Motors swept the Weirdest Actor (Denis Lavant), Weirdest Scene (the accordion intermission), and Weirdest Movie categories in our 2012 Weirdcademy Awards contest.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The character of Merde, the gimpy, gibbering, flower-eating subterranean leprechaun-creature, who was so unforgettable Carax recycled him from his segment in the triptych Tokyo!. For a single snapshot that captures Merde’s hard-to-define charm, we select the moment when he bites off a woman’s finger, then licks supermodel Eva Mendes, leaving a trail of blood on her armpit. Ever the professional, she never breaks her expression of sultry indifference.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Holy Motors is overwrought, pretentious, obscure, scatterbrained, confusing, and self-indulgent—all qualities that, when matched with talent, typically make for a great work of weird art. Prepare to be perplexed. You won’t, however, be bored.
PLOT: “Mr. Oscar” drives around Paris in a limo taking on nine “assignments” which require him to become an accordion player, a hitman, and fashion model-abducting leprechaun, among other personae.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Holy Motors is overwrought, pretentious, obscure, scatterbrained, confusing, and self-indulgent—all qualities that typically make for a great work of art. The main knock against it certifying it as one of the 366 Best Weird Movies immediately is that it’s not yet out on DVD—but keep an eye out for it in the near future.
COMMENTS: Leos Carax’ segment in the portmanteau film Tokyo! revolved around a gimpy, gibbering leprechaun dubbed “Merde” (played by Denis Lavant) who arose from the sewers to scandalize the polite people of Japan by eating money and licking schoolgirls on the street. In that movie Merde served as a symbol of Japanese xenophobia, a surreal and satirical rendition of boorish Western invaders as seen through Eastern eyes. Lavant reprises Merde in Holy Motors, but here the character is even more random, limping through a Parisian cemetery eating flowers off of gravesites and abducting a fashion model (Eva Mendes) with the backbone of a rag doll. The idea that an already mysterious and absurd character like Merde would be resurrected and tossed into a situation that’s even further out of context is typical of Holy Motors‘ approach. In between a very weird prologue featuring director Carax as a man living in a secret room behind a cinema where shadowy beasts prowl the aisles, and very weird epilogue featuring chauffeuse Edith Scob and a parking lot full of telepathic limousines, Lavant (presumably) plays ten different roles—nine “assignments” and his base character of “Mr. Oscar.” There are no connections between the parts he is assigned: some, like Merde, are purely absurd, some are musical, and some are legitimately moving human moments. Each segment operates according to its own internal illogic. The roles are arbitrary, like the jobs any working actor would take: this month an action hero, next month a dying benefactor. At times we see, or at least think we see, hints of the “real” person behind Mr. Oscar, but mostly we see him applying his makeup in front of his mobile vanity mirror, preparing to disappear into a new role. It’s never suggested what the purpose of these performances might be, or whom they are for the benefit of, or if they ever end (when Oscar goes home for the night, it appears he is only playing another insane character). Scenes that appear to involve Mr. Oscar as “real” person sometimes turn out to be part of another assignment; if we try to figure out who Oscar really is, we’re continually frustrated. By the end of the long twenty-four hour session Mr. Oscar looks weary, sad and resigned; but he must wake up in the morning and do it all over again. It’s a bravura suite of performances by Lavant, who is appointed to capture the whole strange and tragic spectrum of human activity in a single day. In Carax’ eyes this spectrum involves motion-capture sex scenes, accordion intermissions, and mixed human-chimpanzee marriages. Prepare to be perplexed. You won’t, however, be bored.
Carax assembled a fascinating cast for his first feature film in over a decade. Gnarly faced Lavant, who has appeared in all of the director’s previous films as well as gracing weird works by Veit Helmer, Harmony Korine and Veiko Õunpuu, was the obvious choice for the lead in the most ambitiously odd art film of the French calendar. The casting of Scob and Piccoli, who between them have worked with all of the great European Surrealist filmmakers of the past, from Franjou to Ferreri to Buñuel, is an equally obvious nod to Carax’ influences, one that positions Motors as the latest link in a long cinematic chain. Australian popstress Kylie Minogue immediately scores unexpected cool points by appearing in this project, while glamour girl Eva Mendes follows up her role in Herzog‘s Bad Lieutenant with this even weirder part. We definitely approve of the way her career is headed (even though her recent choices probably make her agent tear his hair out).
(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who said it was “weird, weird, weird. You already guessed, I know that, but right now I’m making it official. For once, I’m pretty confident it’s going to make its way to the List…” . Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
PLOT: Can a picturesque but dilapidated Turkish bathhouse pass a government inspection, and can love between a poolboy and a female patron flourish after the girl’s father is killed when a piece of the crumbling ceiling falls on him?
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak Expressionist world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences and has the instinctual organic oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness. In fact, it falls short of making the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the first ballot by as slim a margin as is possible. Visually, Tuvalu is a stunner; it only falls short of classic status due to a stiff storyline. While it’s hard to imagine 250 or so more impressive weird movies to make the list ahead of this one, we’re going to hold back for the moment and hold out hope we do locate them; if not, we expect Tuvalu will be back to take up the slack.
COMMENTS: Stylistically, Tuvalu takes its cue from the weird world of silent film, in more ways than one. Director Veit Helmer challenges himself to tell the story with the minimum amount of dialogue possible; only names and very occasional words (“no!,” “technology!”) are spoken. Remarkably, from the context, the characters convey almost as much information to us just by saying each others’ names with the proper inflection, and the story is effectively told entirely on the visual level. The color scheme is 1920s monochrome, sepias for indoor scenes and steel gray for exteriors, with a brief explosion of color appearing in the rambunctious storybook hand-tinting of the fantasy scenes. There are ample references to slapstick, too, with certain sequences cranked-up Keystone Kops style, and put-upon poolboy Anton (craggy-faced Lavant) constantly scurrying about his family’s Turkish bath putting out fires started by the eccentric denizens of this timeless movie-caricature world. More recent Tuvaluan influences come from famed French fantasists Jeunet/Caro (in the rapturously baroque Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: TUVALU (1999)→
This review originally appeared in a slightly different form at The Cinematheque.
Surprisingly resonant, this little film from the wilds of Estonia is a sharply focused take on the classic tale of St. Anthony, recalling the work of such past auteurs as Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Bresson and Renoir. The Temptation of St. Tony, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, explores the modern world by showing the strange half-built state of affairs in the former Soviet state: middle-management bureaucrats with bourgeois attitudes traipsing about in the visual poverty of newly built homes on ugly, fauna-less tracts of land—Huxley’s grey squat buildings with a twist. All the while, the film is ensconced inside the world of Hieronymus Bosch, whose “Temptation of St. Anthony” provides the visual starting point.
Shot in crisp black and white (so crisp one could call it black and silver) Õunpuu gives us a tale that is pure Kafka (via Tarkovksy visually and Bunuel spiritually), interspersed with visions of a hellish possibility that twists the film into a nightmare. Our faithful and fateful protag is homebound after a party when he hits and kills a dog. He drags the dog into the woods to hide the evidence and stumbles upon a severed human hand. Upon further inspection, our man finds a pile of dozens and dozens of severed human hands. This is the beginning of the Kafkaesque nightmare, which roller coasters its way through Hell and back and into its inevitably tragic, incessantly twisted finale.
The centerpiece of the film is the Bosch-like Hell that plays itself as some sort of nightclub-cum-cannibalistic whorehouse where our “hero” must save the waifish (read: pretty, but used would-be crack whore) damsel-in-distress he has become enamored with—and since we are throwing in influences, let’s toss in David Lynch right around this point. The place is made up in such a way that we would not be surprised to find the disfigured face of Tom Waits dancing about in some sinister manner—and for a second we almost seem to, though at second glance we find that it’s the French actor Denis Lavant. Whatever the case may be, The Temptation of St. Tony—this strangely sublime nightmare of a movie, in its crisper-than-crisp photography, impossible Kafkaesque storyline, Bosch-inspired visual audacity and Tarkovskyian layerings—is a film you’ll be hard pressed to avert your eyes from, even in the most disturbing of moments.
PLOT: An anthology of three short films set in Tokyo: an experimental filmmaker’s girlfriend feels useless until she undergoes a strange transformation; a bizarre man-creature crawls out of the sewers and terrorizes the city; and an urban hermit falls in love with a pizza-delivery girl with buttons tattooed on her body.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It suffers from the curse of most anthology films: unevenness. Leos Carax’s “Merde” is almost weird enough to carry it across the finish line, but the other two entries, while interesting, drag the film down to the borderline.
COMMENTS: If Paris’ tradition earns it an anthology film dedicated to love, then teeming, tragic Tokyo gets a triptych on the theme of weirdness. But even though Tokyo is top-billed, this exercise is hardly about the city at all. The Japanese metropolis is depicted as too practical, too generic, for a love letter; it instead becomes a metaphor for urban absurdity and anxiety. Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is up to bat first. His “Interior Design,” about a couple sleeping on a friend’s floor while searching for an apartment, starts out so slow that mainstream viewers may be tricked into thinking it’s a conventional drama. The character development and performances are good, although these particular people—a struggling experimental filmmaker and his passive, too-sacrificing girlfriend—don’t seem quite interesting enough to make a movie about, so we wonder what exactly he’s up to. Along the way there’s a subtle and funny parody of a parody of the sort of pretentious art-school films that don’t really exist anywhere, but that people like to imagine anyway when dismissing the avant-garde (the beams from the headlight of a motorcycle driven by a skull faced man form a swastika, among other absurd jokes). The third act brings a metamorphosis that lets Gondry indulge his talent for weird and striking visuals; it ends with a disturbing and humorous metaphor for depersonalization that makes the sly point that there may be greater things to aspire to in life than just being useful.
Joon-ho Bong’s “Tokyo Shaking” is the closer, and the weakest outing. His story concerns a “hikikomori,” or urban hermit, living on takeout pizza in a self-imposed exile from human contact and sunlight. It’s an interesting character and there are some bizarre incidents along the way, but in the end the story misses the universal pathos at which it was aiming.
The centerpiece, Carax’s “Merde,” is a change of pace in tone and an upping of the ante in weirdness. The scenario involves a nasty man named Merde with a twisted red beard, milky eye and a shuffling gait who randomly arises from the sewers and makes an extreme nuisance of himself, embarrassing and assaulting the proper Japanese bystanders, before descending back under the city as quickly as he came. Eventually his provocations go beyond the merely gauche and he’s hunted down and put on trial; his defense lawyer is a civilized Frenchman who shares the same physical characteristics and inexplicably speaks his language of grunts, whines, hops and slaps. Merde himself is reminiscent of one of those socially obnoxious “Saturday Night Live” sketch characters that Will Ferrel used to specialize in, if Ferrel had been willing to play mute and push the character’s oddness to scary limits. On the way to a mystical conclusion the script takes satirical jabs at Japanese xenophobia and the death penalty, and parodies the frenzies created by TV news broadcasts. Fans have interpreted this strange story as everything from a spoof of Godzilla films to a twisted Christ allegory, and both theories fit the film; it’s that kind of parable. Although Gondry and Bong’s offerings fit into the weird genre, it’s “Merde” that makes this omnibus of unease worth the watch for fans of the absurd.