Kerouac's road trip too far

Thu, May 24, 2012, 01:00

Holy Motors explodes, squirts and gushes on to the screen

On The Road: You're better off staying at home.

‘On The Road’ perfectly recreates the frustration of being trapped in a car with stoners, while ‘Holy Motors’ does to film what Jackson Pollock did to canvas.

ON THE ROAD **

Directed by Walter Salles

Starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams 180 min, playing in competition

It’s Tuesday morning and, with the screech of blood, an adrenaline sun pulls the crooked crowd, swirling, swirling with junk anticipation, towards the solid gawping screen. On, on, on.

Oh, you know how this stuff goes. Walter Salles’s adaptation of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s puzzlingly durable wad of hip gibberish, has been fluttering around the schedules for years. Indeed, many people felt sure it would debut at Cannes last year. Well, the finished product certainly looks as if it has been honed to some class of perfection.

On the Road brilliantly recreates the boredom and frustration that might result from being trapped in a car with three stoned pre-beatniks for two and a half hours. Indeed, Salles’s film acts as an accidental advertisement for the straight life. After the first half hour of shagging, smoking and jiving, many hitherto cool viewers will find themselves longing to buy a caravan and move to the suburbs.

Okay. That’s a little unfair. This is a beautifully made and very well acted film. Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise, alter ego of the author, who makes friends with a bisexual drifter named Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and joins him on the open road. If you’ve read the rambling tome – famously written on a continuous strip of paper – you’ll know that no further synopsis is possible or desirable. They booze. They read Proust. They drive.

As we might expect from the director of The Motorcycle Diaries, the film has impeccable surface gloss. Gustavo Santaolalla’s music offers superb pastiches of late Charlie Parker and early John Coltrane. Éric Gautier’s cinematography casts stained-glass prettiness over every image. Maybe it’s all a little too good looking – at times, more Norman Rockwell than Edward Hopper – but you can’t fault the professionalism on display. The actors also do well. Hedlund and Riley have charm. Viggo Mortensen is brilliant as a version of William S Burroughs. We know Kristen Stewart can sulk.

But no amount of burnishing can disguise the fact that On the Road has never possessed a story. Moreover, the characters’ self absorption – and that of their real-life models – no longer seems as charming as it once did. Salles and Jose Rivera, his screenwriter, are to be commended for acknowledging how badly the supposed rebels treated women: wives, girlfriends, mothers. But the downside to this honesty is that Sal and Dean now seem almost impossible to endure. Sorry, man. But this flick is a drag.

HOLY MOTORS ****

Directed by Leos Carax Starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue 115 mins, screening in competition

If you see only one movie featuring moaning carnal relations between giant virtual space monsters this year, make sure it’s Leo’s Carax’s Holy Rollers. Freaky contortions are all in a day’s work for the film’s hilariously ill-defined hero. Following a brief prologue, wherein the director wanders into the city behind his bedroom wall, protagonist Monsieur Oscar (Lavant x 11, as it says in the credits) sets off in a white stretch limousine, with glamorous chauffeur (Scob) at the wheel, for a series of “appointments”. Each duty requires a metamorphosis.

Alternately, he’s a billionaire with armed bodyguards, a grumbling beggar lady, a motion-capture ninja, a weary dad to a sulky teenage girl, a killer and his identical victim, and, most memorably, the half-blind leprechaun who kidnaps Eva Mendes, dresses her in a burka and eats her hair.

Carax’s first feature film since 1999 does to cinema what Jackson Pollock once did to canvas; it explodes, squirts and gushes on to the screen, then rolls around in its own lovely mess. But what’s it supposed to be? Darned if we know. And yet the manic, surreal and demented vignettes do, finally, coalesce into a set-up, joke, set-up, joke rhythm. What appears to be a self-reflexive commentary on cinema replete with Brechtian punch-lines soon becomes a joke at the expense of self-reflexive commentaries replete with Brechtian punch-lines.

If Cannes juror Jean Paul Gaultier doesn’t fight tooth and nail to ensure this fabulosity gets a prize – did we mention it features Kylie Minogue in a pixie hair cut singing a wry ditty by Neil Hannon? – we’ll eat our sailor hats.

In a hazier era it would play midnight screenings and all reviews would read “far out”. Instead, it’s at the Palais, where, along with the rest of the audience, we were happy to leap to our feet and cheer when the final credits rolled. A crowd that fails to produce a single boo or theatrical sigh or sound of dissent? At Cannes? Now that really is surreal.