Watching “The Impossible” and “Holy Motors”
I’ve always had a soft spot for disaster movies. Take the 1997 movie “Volcano.” This dumb and schlocky film managed to keep me pinned to my seat simply by filling the streets of L.A. with lava, and depicting terrified citizens attempting to stay out of harm’s way. The 1996 film “Twister” offered similar thrills. So I was looking forward to “The Impossible,” about the devastating tsunami of 2004. If nothing else, I figured the film would offer a terrifying glimpse of one of the worst natural disasters of all time.
And it does. “The Impossible” is impeccably crafted, features fine performances and tells a suspenseful, gripping tale. But I found the whole experience of watching it deeply unsettling, and as the film progressed, I found it increasingly offensive. I knew going in to “The Impossible” that the film focuses on an upper class family vacationing in Thailand, and their efforts to find each other after the tsunami destroys their resort. And I understood that this might be problematic — that by telling the story of the tsunami through the eyes of rich white people, “The Impossible” would give short shrift to the storm’s real victims. However, I thought it would be possible to overcome my reservations and simply enjoy the film. But I was wrong.
For one thing, the tsunami really happened. Director Juan Antonio Bayona, who helmed the terrific 2007 Spanish ghost story the “The Orphanage,” approaches the story of the tsunami with great sensitivity, but he can’t quite overcome the fact that “The Impossible” is ultimately a popcorn movie — a film that aims to thrill viewers with exciting footage of Mother Nature’s wrath, and warm their hearts with a touching family story.
The tsunami scenes are everything they’re cracked up to be — vivid, enthralling and scary — and I felt weird about this. “The Impossible” follows the basic story arc of a film such as “Volcano,” but is burdened by noble intentions that a film such as “Volcano” lacks. You can watch “Volcano” and thrill to the scenes of lava rushing through the streets, and roll your eyes when Tommy Lee Jones is sappily reunited with his daughter. Because “The Impossible” is a true story, based on real people and a fairly recent tragedy, I felt guilty about thrilling to the disaster footage, and also guilty about how annoying I ultimately found the family story, which is shamelessly melodramatic, but dares the viewer to object to it. After all, it’s true!
And at some basic level, it works. I’ll admit that, as a Westerner, I probably found it easier to identify with the Bennetts than with a Thai family; the film made me recall where I was when I learned about the tsunami — on vacation in Costa Rica — and reflect upon how awful it would be to go abroad and lose my family, even if the loss was only temporary. So perhaps the best way to think about “The Impossible” is as a horror movie geared toward people who like to travel. The film opens with footage of the Bennetts flying to Thailand, and closes with footage of them flying out. Unfortunately, many of the tsunami’s victims didn’t have that luxury.
Which isn’t to say that “The Impossible” doesn’t have its merits. The parents, Henry and Maria Bennett, are well played by Ewen McGregor and Naomi Watts, who was nominated for an Oscar, though I thought the film might have been better had it simply focused on the couple’s three children. The story of the oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), and his effort to care and watch over his severely injured mother, is the heart of the film, and the best scenes revolve around him; I thought the scene were Lucas finds himself in a room full of children orphaned by the tsunami was quite affecting.
“The Impossible” is a simple film that wants to remember the tsunami and provide some inspirational scenes of strangers helping each other out. There’s nothing wrong with this, exactly, but I couldn’t help but think that a lot of talent went into a project of dubious merit.
Of course, it’s possible that I was experiencing moviegoing whiplash while watching “The Impossible.” The day before, I attended a screening of the surrealistic French head trip “Holy Motors” at the Saratoga Film Forum, and it was a bit jarring to move from a film that questions the very nature of existence and reality to a based-on-true-events tearjerker.
“Holy Motors” is quite possibly one of the strangest films ever made — a smorgasbord of bizarre and eye-popping imagery, wedded to a narrative with multiple layers and themes and no clear, single meaning. Directed by Leos Carax, the film tells the story of a man named Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) who is first seen leaving his home and getting into a white limousine. He appears to be a businessman, but his attire is apparently a costume: Oscar changes clothes, and when he steps out of the limo, at his first appointment, he is playing the part of an elderly beggar woman, shaking a cup and asking for change. Throughout the day, Mr. Oscar will change costumes multiple times, and many of the vignettes he performs are sly tweakings of movie genres: At one stop, he enters a warehouse clad in spacesuit-like garb and engages in an erotic dance/duel with a similarly clad woman; at another stop, he is an uncivilized troll who emerges from the sewer, disrupts a photo suit in a cemetery, kidnaps the model, brings the model to the sewer, and dresses her in a burqa.
Many critics have written about how “Holy Motors” is a love letter or tribute to cinema, with Lavant depicting the life of an actor in an age when the old ways of making and watching films are dying, and being replaced. The film does function on this level, but I’m more interested in what Carax’s vision of a world where actors step in and out of roles and perform for an unseen audience might have to say about the fluidity of identity and the odd dislocation of contemporary life. “What if there is no beholder?” Mr. Oscar asks at one point, raising questions about the purpose of art, as well as the existence of God.
At the end of the film, Mr. Oscar’s chauffeur puts on a white mask and heads home, and I wondered whether Carax was suggesting that dreams and fantasy reveal deeper truths than the reality of day-to-day existence. But who knows? “Holy Motors” is a really strange movie that resists interpretation. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re interested in seeing something unique, endlessly creative and filled with provocative images and ideas, you shouldn’t miss it.
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