The concerned tweets started around 9:30 P.M. Technical difficulties were delaying the U.S. premiere of “Passion,” the latest film from Brian De Palma. The code that ran the digital projection was corrupted, and by 10:00, the screening was cancelled, with tickets refunded and patrons quite upset. Digital issues ruining De Palma’s movie was particularly ironic, as “Passion” is the one film in this year’s New York Film Festival that finds truth within digital imagery. It’s also one of three films at the festival — along with “Holy Motors” from Leos Carax and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” from Alain Resnais — to question our evolving relationship to the digital.
Of the three, “Passion” is the most optimistic, even if it tells a gruesome story of betrayal and revenge. Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace star as a pair of advertising consultants at a high-powered firm where passive-aggressive backstabbing turns into melodramatic backstabbing and finally literal backstabbing. The decision to take the narrative from the 2010 French film “Love Crime” by Alain Corneau might seem odd, and some of the angry reactions to “Passion” have approached the film naively by examining it only as camp (an easy task when you have lines like “Do you think I don’t see what’s going on in that dyke brain of yours?”). But to dismiss “Passion” as nothing more than a film with an occasional interesting camera movement seems ignorant, if not downright lazy.
De Palma’s obsession with the digital image — camera phones, security footage, amateur sex tapes — becomes not only essential to the narrative, but a startling vision of how technology runs our society and reveals truth. A joke involving an “ass cam” smart phone, exposing men who attempt to secretly give a quick stare, emphasizes the film’s camp elements, but when that same phone plays an essential role in capturing a murder, De Palma’s intentions become clear: the digital footage shows the grotesque desires the characters keep hidden. De Palma shot “Passion” on 35mm, a red herring if there ever was one, to juxtapose celluloid and digital images. Andre Bazin suggested film captures light from the moment of reality, and thus has an indexical relation to the real. But in De Palma’s world, the real itself is an illusion, and one can only place their faith in digital.
De Palma might be in the minority here, or at least he’s certainly not on Leos Carax’s side, whose “Holy Motors” is a peculiar rant against digital cinema in the most backwards way imaginable. The film stars Denis Lavant as Oscar, an actor traveling around Paris in a limo, emerging each time as a completely transformed character: an old, poor woman, a hilariously horrifying troll, a murderous factory worker.
The first thirty minutes of “Holy Motors” are rich with imagery and dreamlike absurdity, but then Carax reveals his game — Oscar’s boss (Michel Piccoli) complains that he no longer seems to have the passion in his work that he once had, while Oscar morbidly mumbles on about how the cameras have become so small that acting has lost its value. His driver allows him to see the world through screens while riding in his limo, and he later has a perverse nightmare in which he imagines his life in digital, slowly corrupting before him. It seems like all Carax really needs is a title card at the end exclaiming “Fin De Cinema!” (Godard beat him to it by 40 years).
But “Holy Motors”‘ schematic structure undercuts his motives at every point. His vignettes, made up of unconnected sequences from failed projects over the years are ecstatic, comic, or tragic, but ultimately meaningless. A bland Kylie Minogue sings an ever blander song about her nostalgia for the past, but what does that have to do with a gang of accordions roaming through a church? For every moment of serious contemplation in the film, there’s another of humor, most notably a reveal of monkeys in a late scene. He “ironically” shoots the film in high-definition digital and puts that at odds with his ending, in which a series of mechanical characters moan their inevitable demise. “Holy Motors” opens on Carax himself viewing a lifeless audience in a theater, and his references to classics of cinema past certainly suggest a mourning of the transition to digital. But his conclusions, especially when filtered through his sarcasm, seem to suggest his own cleverness more than anything profound.
So should we trust in De Palma’s revealing digital images or wallow in Carax’s meaninglessness? Perhaps the answer is neither — we can instead have a conversation between the ontological and the digital, the young and the old, as in Alain Resnais’ latest film, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” The film’s title, which recalls the first line of dialogue from the very first sound film, “The Jazz Singer,” suggests a film about transitions. The film’s narrative revolves around the greats of French cinema (Michel Piccoli! Lambert Wilson! Anne Consigny! Sabine Azéma!) coming to a dearly departed friend’s home to watch his living will. In the video, the dead playwright asks the actors to judge a recorded performance of “Eurydice,” the Jean Anilouh adaptation of the Greek myth. The video is a piece of stripped-down realism, shot in HD. But a funny thing happens as they watch it: the actors can’t help but perform the lines of the roles they once played, and soon they are imagining the sets as well. Resnais’s magical realism is pure humanist delight, creating a literal conversation between his style and the new school of thought, trying to place them side-by-side instead of ripping them apart. In one of the final images, the young and old meet in a magical place that might be death, but also is a transport to whatever comes next.
Resnais’ humanism is essential in his relationship between digital and reality, as it is an inevitable clash that might seem to only have one ending. But these three artists all see their own different approach to viewing it: Perverse truth, sarcastic loathing, an inviting step. Perhaps by the next festival, we’ll see which one was right. That is, if the code allows the film to play.
Peter Labuza is the host of The Cinephiliacs, and a contributor to Indiewire, Press Play, The Playlist, among other publications. He is currently pursuing an MA in film history at Columbia University. You can read his blog here. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.