Movie Scene of the Year: The ‘Holy Motors’ Accordion Intermission

By  · Published on December 28th, 2012

Movie Scene of 2012

Whether you loved it, hated it, or were scratching your head all the way through, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is a memorable film. This disjointed, manic work is one of the most original and boundary-pushing movies of the year, avoiding anything resembling narrative coherence and conventional character development. It also features an amazing lead performance by Denis Lavant as a huge cast of unusual characters. While many moments in the film stand out – the motion capture sex scene, Eva Mendes’s abduction by Lavant’s sewer-dwelling goblin, Kylie Minogue’s touch of tragedy through song – perhaps the film’s most exhilarating moment was its musical intermission, in which Lavant leads a band through an old cathedral where they collectively rock out with their accordions out. Even amongst the FSR staff who weren’t as taken by this film as I was (his name rhymes with Rob Hunter), we mostly agreed that this scene stands out, even in a film (and a year of films) with many great scenes to choose from.

I would describe the context in which this scene shows up, but one beautiful thing about Holy Motors’s accordion break is that the context doesn’t actually matter. While Holy Motors arguably does have something resembling a larger storytelling arc, the film’s collection of strange episodes is essentially interchangeable. Just as Lavant’s character moves from one disguise (and identity) to another, no iteration of himself necessarily follows the other.

What stands out about the accordion scene is that it’s staged as a “break” from the film itself. But in a film that is this deliberately coherent, a break from what exactly?

Amongst the endless clutter in Lavant’s unnamed/multi-hyphenate protagonist’s limousine lies a piece of sheet music that reads “Entr’acte,” literally “between the acts” or “Intermission.” Seeing as Holy Motors is, in part, a tribute to silent cinema – the movie opens with Lavant stumbling upon a theater of sleeping filmgoers watching King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) and features interstitial black-and-white early film images like the opening/closing hands that precede this scene – the choice of words here could be in reference to fellow Frenchman René Clair’s experimental film Entr’acte (1924), which had an original score composed by Erik Satie. Entr’acte depicted the many ways in which the portrayal of human movement (a practice that was, arguably, the object of cinema’s origins) in film can be manipulated: slowed down, sped up, creating a variety of fabricated impressions, etc.

Holy Motors, as a whole, is (amongst its many, many potential interpretations) about the ways in which the notion of a single unique person can be complicated through the devices available to cinema. Like Clair’s film, Holy Motors is a playful experiment that attempts to explore the sense of endless potential embraced in the earliest days of movies in which coherent storytelling was hardly a major goal.

But the piece played by Lavant and his band of walking musicians is not Satie’s “Entr’acte” (I have no idea what the piece of music is that the word “Entr’acte” is scribbled on – do any of you commenters read music?), but a cover of late bluesman R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” composed by Doctor L. and Bertrand Cantat. As with many of the choices made in Carax’s film, there’s no clear answer to the inevitable questions raised by the choice of this particular song covered by this particular instrument. But who cares? The end result is undeniably cool and raucous, a simple and straightforward yet strange and exhilarating moment that is impossible to replicate in any other form besides the movies. The accordion scene of Holy Motors concisely represents what the movie seems to be attempting as a whole: it resists conventions of narrative and character development in favor of something that more closely resembles a direct, hardly explicable sensation. Holy Motors is a weird movie, but this scene gives its audience the gift of this weirdness. It doesn’t resemble anything else at the movies, but at the same time it’s so thoroughly and intently tied to the art of filmmaking. This scene is, in short, pure cinema that rocks.

And there’s nothing quite like a man with an accordion yelling (in French) “Three! Twelve! Shit!” before an encore…

What were your favorite scenes this year?