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Two films releasing in August around Australia take place largely inside a stretch limo – well, not the same one, two different ones. Although the similarity ends there, it is nonetheless an intriguing phenomenon, partly because a stretch limo symbolises so many things and hits our emotional ‘wealth & glamour’ button, says Andrew L. Urban.

(in cinemas from August 23, 2012)
Made by the iconoclastic French filmmaker Leos Carax, this is a piece of theatre on screen, or a long music video if you like (2hrs 35mins), in which the song comes at the very end. It’s not a music video you’re likely to see on MTV. Kylie Minogue sings the melancholy lyrics that reflect the film’s preoccupation: ‘Who were we / When we were who we were / back then …’ 

To paraphrase the story: From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He goes to work in a stretch limo, in which he changes guises. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man ... He seems to be playing roles, plunging headlong into each part - but where are the cameras? Monsieur Oscar is alone, accompanied only by Céline (Edith Scob), the blonde chauffeur. Along the way he encounters a fashion shoot with a model (Eva Mendes) who he abducts, and a mysterious female (Kylie Minogue) in a matching white stretch limo, with whom he a past.

Carax defies the symbolism; his use of a stretch limo does not symbolise what we expect.

(in cinemas from August 2, 2012)
David Cronenberg, another iconoclastic filmmaker, uses a stretch limo as both location and symbol, as both the symbolic and the literal vehicle for a rich young financial whiz kid on the way to a haircut. I don’t have to tell you that a haircut in finance means losing money. It may be symbolic, but he does also actually get a haircut …. Meanwhile, the limo is his safe haven. He too meets an assortment of characters – like a pack of liquorice allsorts in fact.

Here is how wraps it into a film: Riding across Manhattan in a stretch limo in order to get that haircut, 28-year-old billionaire asset manager (Eric Packer) crosses paths with a variety of characters inside and out of the limo, weathering a violent demo by anarchists (a la Occupy Wall Street) and several strange encounters including a couple with women he seduces. His driver, Torval (Kevin Durand) keeps him informed of developments in New York City – such as the effects of the Presidential visit and potential threats against Packer – but the young man’s world is collapsing even as he lets the outer world go by.

Anyone familiar with Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent black and white masterpiece, Metropolis, will immediately recognise the resonances; the safely cocooned rich in comfort, with the heaving, sweating masses below – or in this case ‘outside’.

In both films, the stretch limo is a haven but in Holy Motors it is a more complex symbol, ambiguous and humorous. In Cosmopolis it is less safe, exposing its passenger to potential risk as underlined by the running commentary on safety by the driver. 

But the biggest difference between the two limos is the cinematic hyperjump which Leos Carax engineers at the end of the film, when the limo joins others at the overnight limo garage for a rest. And a chat. 

Published August 23, 2012

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Holy Motors

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