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: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…
COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.
Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.
And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!
As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.
PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.
PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?
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: Four middle-aged, upper middle-class men (a judge, a TV personality, a pilot and a chef) hole up at a country villa to feast; it is gradually and casually revealed that they plan on eating themselves to death. They gorge themselves constantly, but the pilot can’t stand to go even for a day without sex, so prostitutes are invited to join them—along with a schoolteacher who attaches herself to the group willingly. As the gluttonous orgy continues the whores flee in disgust, but the teacher joins in the bacchanalia with gusto.
All of the main actors use their real names. All four of the male stars were well-established (Mastroianni, of course, was an international star and sex symbol). Except for Noiret, each had worked with director Ferreri before. Each had also had prominent roles in weird films from other European directors (Mastrioanni, most famously, in Federico Fellini films, but Noiret appeared in Zazie dans le Metro for Louis Malle, Piccoli was a mainstay in Buñuel movies, and Tognazzi had small roles in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and Fellini’s Satyricon). The quartet would reunite with the director the next year for a surrealist rendering of Custer’s last stand called Don’t Touch the White Woman (starring alongside another weird favorite, Catherine Deneuve).
The scatological content of the film scandalized some viewers at Cannes, but the film nonetheless won a FIPRESCI prize for Ferreri.
At its British showings La Grande Bouffe was protested by infamous decency crusader Mary Whitehouse; her attempts to have the movie banned ironically led to modification of the Obscene Publications Act to exempt films with artistic merit.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The visions that will probably stick with you when you think back on La Grande Bouffe are scenes of four great European actors stuffing their faces with turkey legs, a castle made out of pâtés, and a pair of matching cakes shaped like breasts. Michel Piccoli dancing with a pig’s head is another strong candidate, as are the numerous gross scatological moments. But, the strangest and most lingering image may be the final one: sides of meat scattered around the villa lawn—a slab of beef wedged in the crook of a tree—and a pack of dogs sitting and looking attentively at the carcasses, making no move to eat.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: La Grande Bouffe takes an absurd premise—four men decide to eat themselves to death—and plays it out with illogical realism, proffering no explanations or motives for what happens. It’s an unnatural but straight-faced parable that suggests nothing about how we’re supposed to take it. It’s a grotesque spectacle, but a strangely engrossing one, with a fascination that comes largely thanks to a dream cast of 1970s Euroweirdos.
PLOT: Séverine is a wealthy young newlywed who proclaims she loves her husband, but refuses to sleep with him. Her erotic life consists of daydreams in which she is bound, whipped and humiliated. She decides to secretly work as a prostitute during the day, taking the stage name “Belle de Jour”; in the course of her adventures a macho young criminal becomes obsessed with Belle, and he sparks sexual passion in her, as well.
The movie was based on a scandalous (but moralizing) 1928 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel.
Belle de Jour marked Buñuel’s return to France after his “Mexican exile.” It was the 67-year old director’s most expensive production to date, his first film in color, and his biggest financial success.
The director did not get along with the star, and the feeling was mutual. Buñuel resented Deneuve because she was forced on him by the producers. For her part, the actress felt “used” by the director. Whatever their differences, however, they made up enough to collaborate again three years later on Tristana.
Séverine’s courtesan name, “Belle de Jour” (literally “day beauty”) is the French name for the daylily; it is also play on “belle de nuit,” slang for a prostitute.
Too spicy for critics in 1967, Belle de Jour won only one major award at the time of its release: the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It now regularly appears on critics top 100 lists (Empire ranked it as the 56th greatest film of world cinema).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The ecstatic look on Catherine Deneuve’s face as, tied up and dressed in virginal white, she’s insulted and spattered with shovelfuls of mud (or is it cow dung?).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although the movie weaves in and out of dreams and reality until we don’t know which is which, by Luis Buñuel’s standards Belle de Jour is a straightforward dramatic film. Even the dream sequences are relatively rational, unthreatening, and easy to follow, making Belle the favorite “Surrealist” film of people who don’t like Surrealism. But something about the dilemma of Séverine/Belle’s divided personality, and her uncertain denouement, sticks with you long after “Fin” appears. The movie’s weirdness is subtle but persistent, like the scent of a woman’s perfume that lingers in the air long after she’s departed the room.
PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework. Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.
COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s. The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses. The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).
It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday. But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint. So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art. The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.
The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious. The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance. Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero. But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash? Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police? Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?
Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization. So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights. For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.
“Dillinger Is Dead throws narrative, psychological, and symbolic common sense out the window… the film’s refusal of clear-cut logic, its contradictory symbols, and its moral ambiguity open it to endless interpretation.”–Michael Joshua Rowin, from the notes to the Criterion Collection edition of Dillinger is Dead
PLOT: Glauco designs gas-masks by day. One night, he returns to the apartment he shares with his wife and live-in maid and, while searching for ingredients for dinner, discovers a gun wrapped in newspaper in his pantry. He spends an evening puttering around the house, making dinner, watching home movies, playing with his various toys, disassembling and reassembling the gun, painting it, then using the weapon in a senseless final act.
John Dillinger was a bank robber in the 1930s who became both Public Enemy #1 and a folk hero.
Ferreri barely directed Piccoli, giving him only simple blocking instructions and dialogue and allowing the actor to improvise the rest of the performance.
This is the first of six films Ferreri and Piccoli made together.
Model Anita Pallenberg may be best known for her romantic involvements with two members of the Rolling Stones (first Brian Jones, and later Keith Richards), but she has had small roles in a couple of weird movies besides this one: Barbarella (1968) and Performance (1970).
The movie was filmed in the apartment of Italian pop-artist Mario Schifano, and some of the painters works (most prominently, “Futurismo Rivisitato“) can be seen in the background.
The observations that the young worker makes to Glauco in the prologue are all paraphrases from philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s essay One-Dimensional Man, a critique of then-contemporary consumerism, mass media and industrialism. Marhola Dargis of the New York Times believes that the entire movie is an attempt to give cinematic form to Marcuse’s ideas.
After its initial release, Dillinger is Dead nearly disappeared. Variety‘s 1999 version of the “Portable Movie Guide” didn’t mention it among their 8700 reviews, Halliwell never heard of it, and Pauline Kael didn’t encounter it in “5001 Nights at the Movies.” It was seldom screened and never appeared on home video until a 2006 revival led to the film being virtually rediscovered, culminating in a 2010 release by the Criterion Collection.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gun that may have belonged to John Dillinger, which fascinates the protagonist. Especially after he paints it bright red and carefully paints white polka dots on it.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dillinger is Dead is a disconnected, absurdist parable where nothing seems to be happening, and when something happens, it doesn’t make sense. It’s very much a product of its time—the anarchic, experimental late 1960s—-yet the world it portrays still feels oddly, and awfully, familiar.