Philosopher and scientist Gaston Bachelard produced an immense and overlooked body of writing on the poetic imagination, one which privileges the form of the discontinuous instant in an elaboration of oneiric signs. Distinguishing reverie as a sphere in which our novel experience of duration as discontinuity is constituted by contingent encounters with matter, Bachelard elaborated a phenomenological hermeneutic, examining the figural and temporal valence of infinitesimal transformations, movements and rhythms of elemental material – the tremulous flaming of a candle, the furious gusting of a wind, the shimmering of a pool.
Who are the cinematic inheritors of a Bachelardian optic? How might our late-stage cinema take up such oneiric signs? One filmmaker who dreams the ineffability of imaginative movement and metamorphosis is Leos Carax. His recent and awe-instilling Holy Motors (2012) conceives the “cinema situation,” or our contemporary dispositif, as a series of unexpected instants. Oscar’s (Denis Lavant) acts of performative labor continually undo any fixed diegesis, insisting on the flight of imagination, and on the image’s evasion of any conceptual fixity. It has been widely noted that the film is deeply reflexive–it is “about” cinema as an archive of reanimated affective fragments, about loss and the ethical melancholy of the digital abyss. But it is also a film that in its unforeseen turns indulges in the boundless drive for images, images indissoluble from the aleatory sensations they incite. The film invokes the primacy of mimetic movement, in performance’s staging of mutation and transfiguration, as well as the attendant corporeal exhaustion it exacts.
Bachelard’s impressionist method sees reverie as a mode of “living what has not been lived” and an encounter with the “sudden image,” a poetics “independent of causality.” Holy Motors manifests this sensibility in the singular nature of each episodic appointment, each deformation of Lavant, whose roles veer from old beggar-woman to creaturely sewer dweller, to thuggish doppelganger, to motion capture stuntman, to wrenching ghost of realisms past. Lavant’s performance, its plasticity and conscripted necessity – a vocational calling to “the beauty of the act” – materializes a figure of inexorability, a circularity that is at once exhilaration and lament. Is this oneiric drive a propulsion towards the singular alterity of unrepeatable, heterogeneous time or a deceptively repetitive loop? In the “end,” Carax opts for the novelty of the reverberating instant, for the irrevocable return of metaphor to metamorphosis in the ecstatic “sonority of being.”