In our Yearbook series, Double Exposure contributors share lists and essays that attempt to define their year in film. In this entry, Olivia Domba looks at the roles performance and acting play in two of the year’s strangest films.
The difference between performance and acting, according to Marina Abramović, is that when you perform, the knife and blood are real, but when you act, the knife is fake and the blood is ketchup. Although Abramović was talking about the delineation between theatrical and performance elements in her art, a tension raised in this year’s Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, the potential difference between – and utility of – performance and acting has been the focus of some of my favorite films this year.
No film dealt with the topic of performance more than Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, a movie that has both vocal champions and detractors. Denis Lavant’s M. Oscar assumes persona after persona, leading to a bizarre sexual experience with a woman in a motion capture studio and an even more bizarre stroll through a Paris cemetery and sewer as M. Merde, the focus of Carax’s segment of the 2008 omnibus Tokyo!. For every freakish, disgusting “appointment,” there are brief moments of touching humanity – a conversation between a father and daughter, the intersection of M. Oscar and Kylie Minogue’s Jean in an abandoned department store, but like every appointment, each has a definite ending. M. Oscar returns to his limousine and peels off layer after layer of make-up, stripping one identity, only for a new and equally artificial one to take its place. The profession is obviously taking its toll on the man; despite the brevity of his time simply being M. Oscar, one exchange between himself and a mysterious passenger in his limousine underlines his misgivings about the entire affair. He is simultaneously none and all of the personas in the film, a compendium of seemingly isolated masks assumed for an unforgiving profession that has consumed and defined M. Oscar.
If performance defined M. Oscar, Aggeliki Papoulia’s nurse struggled with performance’s suffocation of her reality in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps. The dark comedy focuses on an agency that provides substitutes for lost relatives. The overly impersonal, scripted interactions between the clients and the substitutes are the pinnacle of shoddy acting; passionless, mechanical, and overly self-conscious, the substitutes never seamlessly melt into their clients’ lives. While most of the agency’s substitutes are too egotistical to even attempt to assume anything beyond the superficial characteristics of their “characters,” Papoulia’s nurse becomes infatuated with the release she experiences as other people, facilitating a painfully awkward sexual encounter with one client – the first in a string of infractions that eventually get her kicked out of the agency. The prolonged assumption of a dead girl’s identity – her boyfriend, her tennis shoes, her room – sends the nurse into such a severe crisis of identity that she can no longer understand where her identity ends and the assumed identity of the dead girl begins. The central notion that people would be willing to pay for a complete stranger to assume the role of someone loved, but dead, challenges both the finitude and value of individual existence. If anyone could be me – be my brother’s sister, my parents’ children, friend to my friends – what makes my existence important? Are any of our individual existences important? Alps raises that existential crisis within an absurd context that encourages us to laugh at its seriousness without alleviating any of the self-doubt.
It is almost impossible to distinguish acting and performance as two completely separate entities. Both articulate the individual in some type of artistic space alienated from complete reality, but performance understands the individual as projecting a narrative, while acting sees the individual assuming an exterior narrative, to the best of his or her abilities. M. Oscar’s romp through Paris sides more with performance: one man’s expression of the fractured alienation of the modern world. Alps focuses on the claustrophobia and consequences of a narrative that is being perpetuated in order to avoid the reality of loss; acting is initially presented as a foundation for a narrative that fails to acknowledge the pain and loss of death, but the steady descent of the nurse into an extreme crisis of identity demonstrates the inherent flaws of the entire conceit. In both films, the line between performance and acting has been blurred. The knife may be plastic or steel, the blood real or ketchup – these factors become increasingly irrelevant in the landscape of Holy Motors andAlps; what matters is the continuous presence of the individual, struggling to understand herself in a world that only seeks to flatten and compartmentalize identity for the utility of others.