It's a clown's world in Holy Motors, Life Without Principle, and Pierre Étaix

by

comment

From The Arsonists at Trap Door Theatre
  • From The Arsonists at Trap Door Theatre
Watching Trap Door Theatre's production of The Arsonists on Saturday night, I realized that I would be looking at clowns all weekend. The night before, I had revisited Leos Carax's circuslike Holy Motors—a film constructed around Denis Lavant's acrobatic and cartoonishly made-up lead performance—and the following afternoon I had plans to see Pierre Étaix play a clown in Yoyo at the Siskel Center. How refreshing it was to read Thomas Mann on the train between shows (I'm currently working my way through "Death in Venice" and Seven Other Stories) and get some much-needed seriousness in my life.

Then again, The Arsonists demonstrated how clowning could be serious business too. I learned from the program that the show's director, Paris-based theater artist Victor Quezada-Perez, had made it his mission to "promote the work of artists through clowning" and to "combat totalitarianism through poetry and art." That may sound highfalutin, but what could be further removed from totalitarian authority than a clown? By exaggerating his gestures and, by extension, the emotions behind them to the point of absurdity, a good clown can cut through the uniform seriousness around certain subjects and encourage us to think about them differently. The Arsonists, in which all the characters are portrayed as clowns, considers nothing less than the makeup of society in general. In his program notes the show's dramaturge cites a key line of dialogue delivered by one of the homeless men who upsets the bourgeois household that takes him in: "If the thought of radical change scares you more than the thought of disaster, what can you do to stop the disaster?"

It's hard to tell whether the clowns' brash, sometimes destructive behavior represents disaster or radical change; much of it could be read either way. The same could be said of Lavant's antics as "Monsieur Merde" in Holy Motors, which got some of the biggest laughs at the Music Box on Friday night. Eating flowers, speaking in gibberish, and showing no sense whatsoever of decorum, Merde is something of a walking disaster, spreading chaos wherever he goes. At the same time, he's capable of cutting through the art-world bullshit of a Paris fashion shoot, laying waste to the phony and costly beauty on display. (It's worth noting that Geoffrey Carey, playing the photographer, delivers a fine clownish performance himself.) And there's something oddly poignant about his final interaction with the fashion model (Eva Mendes) he kidnaps. Merde's desire here seems practically childlike: perhaps the most valuable thing about the outsize body language of clowning is that it leaves no room for adult behaviors like deceit or self-control.

Lau Ching-wan in Life Without Principle
  • Lau Ching-wan in Life Without Principle
When I wrote about Johnnie To's Life Without Principle on Friday, I referred to the Lau Ching-wan's character as a "pathetic clown." Seeing the film for a fourth time on Saturday (yes, it's that good), I realized it's the character's clownishness that makes him so endearing. As Lau plays him, Panther is a little boy fumbling over himself in the adult world. He makes a good thug because he understands loyalty, and he can even get his foot into market speculation because he gets its underlying greed ("I love all kinds of gambling!" he tells his new business partner). But whenever he's faced with a more complex social code—the economic factors behind a market crash, for instance—he turns into a clown crying over a pie in the face. Lau creates a fantastic body language for the character, alternating between ridiculous tough-guy postures and childish flinches. Up until the last minute, he seems too naive to recognize disaster even when it's all around him; yet it's this naivete, To argues, that makes him able to accept radical change.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

Add a comment