Holy Motors

Holy Motors (2012)

Dir. Leos Carax

Written by: Leos Carax

Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob


I’ll never forget my initial attempts to see Holy Motors, a movie that I knew nothing about from a French filmmaker whom I’d never heard of, at the Three Rivers Film Festival in 2012. The film festival, organized by Pittsburgh Filmmakers every October, is an event that I look forward to as an opportunity to catch up on the year’s small indies, arthouse releases, and foreign films that didn’t find their way into wide distribution. I often go into these movies blind, choosing from the three dozen odd films based mostly on their paragraph-long blurbs on the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ website, and this was certainly the case with Holy Motors. The promotional image chosen, of Edith Scob’s Celine donning an unsettling mask meant to be a direct homage to the French horror classic Eyes Without A Face, was enough to sell me on Holy Motors as the one movie that I absolutely had to see at the film festival that year. I tried twice to make that happen, and twice my screening had to be aborted due to projection issues. Each time, I got far enough into Leos Carax’s surrealist fairytale for it to fully sink its claws into me, and, each time, I was disappointed when I couldn’t experience the ending of this one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. I had to purchase Holy Motors on DVD a few months later when it was released just so I could see the movie in its entirety, and it is one of the most satisfying movie purchases that I’ve made in the last decade. Holy Motors is nothing short of a masterpiece of absurdity, with Carax proudly bearing the surrealist torch. It’s a unique movie experience, and one that might not be easily digested by many or most audiences, but it is, nonetheless, one of my favorite films of the 21st century.

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Holy Motors begins in a place of incoherence, with its opening scene featuring a character named “The Sleeper (Carax),” who rises from his slumber, approaches a hidden door in his bedroom wall (which resembles a forest), and opens it, stepping into a crowded cinema. The Sleeper looks down from the cinema’s balcony, where he stands alone, observing a small boy and a giant dog who prowl the aisles, as the film begins. We then meet Mr. Oscar (Lavant) who exits his home, a brutalist compound patrolled by armed guards, and is picked up in a stretch limousine driven by Céline (Scob). As the two drive away, Céline reminds Mr. Oscar of the number of appointments he has that day, and refers him to a dossier which contains the details thereof. When he arrives at his first appointment, Mr. Oscar emerges from the limousine wearing heavy prosthetics, dressed like a crone, and walking, stooped, with the assistance of a cane. On this assignment, he begs for a while, lamenting the status of the old beggar woman, forgotten and ignored by all who pass, and then returns to the limousine where he removes the false nose and teeth, preparing for his next assignment. In this assignment, Mr. Oscar accesses a high security facility, donning a motion-capture suit, and performs a seductive dance with an actress, which is revealed to be the basis of a computer animation that has turned them both into water dragons. The film continues in this way with Mr. Oscar going from assignment to assignment, assuming various roles and performing a series of vignettes, many of which are absurdist or surreal in nature. While the film continues to defy strict narrative continuity, a thematic coherence begins to emerge, with Mr. Oscar’s assignments standing for film genres and his job emerging as that of the actor and audience surrogate.

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I’ve written before about my love for movies about movies and movie-making, but Holy Motors is a tour de force of meta commentary and heady, involved film theory. This is a movie made for those who love to speculate about the role of art and media, and film, specifically, in the life of the individual and within society. It’s a veritable buffet of sumptuous imagery and provocative narrative posturing. Carax, who is importantly positioned as The Sleeper in the film’s first scene, seems to be casting his gaze across the spectrum of visual media and casting a judgment upon society’s use of film as a distraction and as a communication medium. It’s a movie that I didn’t completely understand when I first saw it, and one that I still don’t claim to have mastered. I could go to its deep well of philosophical import a hundred times and find myself drawing new insights. I think that this mystery is what made me want to go back after my initial screening cut the film off before its end, and then made me want to purchase the film after my second screening experience was botched, as well. I didn’t need to go back to Holy Motors to gain some sense of narrative completion, but rather to wash myself in its utter strangeness time and time again, and to see how Carax would tie all of these disparate, surrealist threads together in the end. I was less interested in figuring out the film’s story as I was in exploring its philosophical home base. Carax’s film opens itself up to a wide number of interpretations from a film theory standpoint. It’s just as easily read as a treatise on screen theory and the role of the spectator as it is an examination of film genres, or on post-modernism and the role of the traditional film in 21st century society, at all. As a critic, I love to wrap myself in the film’s layers and feel its all-encompassing content engulfing my brain.

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Holy Motors is an invigorating and rewarding deep dive for theory nerds, but it still retains the pleasures of watching a breezy, if sometimes inscrutable, piece of entertainment. While the film’s structure and loosely-plotted nature might turn off some casual viewers, I think that most people would find quite a bit to like about Holy Motors. For starters, Lavant puts in a great, understated performance. Though he doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, he provides a blank template upon which the various “assignments” that Mr. Oscar acts out can exist, and those “assignments” leap into life on the screen. One early role, M. Merde, stands out as particularly memorable, with Lavant ditching the elegance of his choreographed motion capture lovemaking in favor of the animalistic, gestural M. Merde who arrives into the film as an agent of chaos. Clad in a shabby green suit, his skin and shockingly orange hair covered in filth and grime, M. Merde crawls out from a sewer, and shambles his way through a cemetery, where he feasts on graveside flowers and assaulting mourners before stumbling upon a fashion shoot. He crashes the photo shoot, kidnapping the model (Eva Mendes), and secrets her away to his subterranean lair where the two smoke cigarettes, and M. Merde eats various non-food substances, including money and the model’s hair. He then fashions her dress into a burqa and leads her deeper into the cave where he strips naked, climbing into her lap and reclining in a pose that is not dissimilar to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” The scene is profane, perverse, and purposefully obfuscates meaning, but there is obviously some deep theological and artistic significance to this reference, and it is also absurdly comical in its trashy nature.

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Contrast this moment with one later in the film in which Mr. Oscar meets up with a former scene partner (and perhaps lover) on the way to one of his last assignments. In this scene, Lavant plays Mr. Oscar naturalistically, free of any of his previous affections. He has been aged up for the role, but otherwise isn’t heavily made up. He and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) reminisce about their work and time together as they leisurely explore an abandoned and crumbling hotel. The faded opulence surrounding the characters reflects the maudlin song that Eva Grace sings, the refrain of which, “Who were we when we were who we were back then?” in turn reflects the shifting nature of these characters’ identities. Who, indeed, were they when they were important to one another, and what weight does that importance really carry if they were only playing out roles. The camera largely follows Eva Grace with Mr. Oscar following behind her, somnambulant, reticent. It’s a far cry from the aggression and grotesquery with which Lavant played M. Merde. It’s fitting, though, and shows off his range well. Though little is made explicit about their relationship in the scene, the tenderness with which Mr. Oscar holds Eva Grace, and the devotion in his eyes when he watches her perform the song tell the tale well enough.  Minogue’s windswept performance is every bit as dramatic as something from a Hollywood musical, and the brief scene gives the film its heart, without ever delving into the details of the pair’s history. Carax is able to create a swell of feeling by manipulating a combination of these great subdued performances, Minogue’s expressive singing voice, a beautiful swell of well-timed strings, and a deeply evocative setting. It’s movie-making 101. Coming near the end of a film that has so wildly veered into experimental territory, this conventional scene surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place, but on the contrary provides the film with its emotional climax.

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Though its surrealist veneer and artsy trappings would likely prove difficult for many viewers to overcome, Holy Motors is the type of varied movie experience that anyone who likes movies should be able to draw some enjoyment from. It contains a handful of moments of high drama, a lot of absurdist comedy as well as sharp satire, and it borrows liberally from science fiction, horror, and action films. It’s a broad and multi-faceted piece of art that seeks to examine why people choose the distractions and the entertainments that they do, and whether film as an entertainment has the hold on the collective imagination in the 21st century that it did in the century before. In addition to being so rich with meaning for cineastes, the film is well-acted, visually sumptuous, and thematically engaging. While not every viewer might respond to the film’s metaphor of the cinema as an aging and dying art form, surely most can relate to Mr. Oscar’s concerns about his own obsolescence as he transitions into middle age, or to Céline’s obvious care and concern for Mr. Oscar, a man who she can never really know. If nothing else, its individual vignettes provide brief moments of engagement that, when taken separately, don’t add up to much, but prove that even the most esoteric of films is an entertainment, because the process of engaging with movies is fun. What makes Holy Motors successful is that even its most absurdist moments are grounded in a bedrock of strong realism, and that as convoluted as its structure and narrative might become, it continues to draw inspiration from the familiar tropes of genre films. It’s a reach for me to say that Holy Motors is accessible, because it really isn’t, but it’s so richly rewarding that I just want more people to see it. It’s the type of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with movies to begin with. It’s a big, all-encompassing, genre-bending work of art, and I want it to get as much admiration as possible.

Au Hasard Balthazar

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Dir. Robert Bresson

Written by: Robert Bresson

Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, Francois Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert


This is a film that I was only introduced to within the last five years, although it has quickly captivated my interest and is on its way to becoming one of my favorite movies of all time. Sometimes there are just those films that when you see them for the first time, you know. You think, “This is something special. This one is going to be sticking with me for a long time.” Or at least, that’s the way I have felt about certain films. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film that I’ve written about on this blog. It wormed its way into my brain, causing me to ponder its mysteries and consider the message of its philosophy for years to come. Au Hasard Balthazar did the same thing to me, but on an emotional level, rather than a cerebral one. Since I first saw this simple fable about the life of a donkey, it’s been one of the few films to consistently move me in an emotional way every time I view it.

Au Hasard Balthazar follows the life of the titular Balthazar, a donkey, and his owner Marie (Wiazemsky) as they grow up and begin to experience life together. Set in a small French farming village, the film is a pastoral fable, exploring themes of human cruelty, suffering, and absolution. Throughout his life, Balthazar has many masters, most of whom treat him with a mixture of indifference and outright cruelty, however, he always returns to Marie, the only human who has ever shown him true love and care. Marie’s own journey in the film, growing from a girl to a woman, parallels Balthazar’s, as she also learns lessons about the capacity of human beings for abuse and cruelty from her “masters,” her father (Philippe Asselin) and the criminal, Gerard (Lafarge), with whom Marie pursues a relationship. At times, Au Hasard Balthazar can seem to be a grim and bleak look into the cruel power that the strong hold over the weak and the helpless, but its ending does hint at the possibility for the meek and the humble to obtain a reprieve from terrestrial sufferings and, ultimately, a form of redemption.

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While this might sound like an over-simple description of the film, Au Hasard Balthazar is just that simple. Bresson is a highly minimalist filmmaker, and the apparent straightforward simplicity of his films often belies their symbolic depths. Underneath the mundane, realist surface of Balthazar lies a wealth of truth about human nature, and the capacity of human beings for achieving redemption and absolution in life. I think these hidden depths are what have so attracted me to the film since I first encountered it in 2013. It’s hard to believe that, presented in such a simple package, a film could contain so much of the human experience, but it’s all there in Balthazar, from birth to death. Bresson manages to capture the essence of human emotion through his animal protagonist, and provides the viewer, through Balthazar, with a blank surface upon which to project their own hopes, fears, and beliefs about life.

Bresson’s Catholicism is often mentioned when discussing his films, particularly Balthazar, as it is so overtly concerned with suffering and redemption, but I have never had much interest in the religious overtones of the film. It is impossible to completely avoid discussing the religious subtext in the film, but I am much more interested in considering the humanistic implications of its themes. Jean Luc Godard once referred to Bresson as the “Grand Inquisitor” of cinema, and by that he meant that Bresson’s films are able to get the very core and essence of the human experience. Though Bresson is largely known for his Catholicism, watching his films truly reveals him to be a Humanist. The films of Bresson, particularly Balthazar, are some of the best examples of film as a humanistic art. A great film can do many things, but one of the chief achievements of the best films is to help the viewer to understand their own humanity, or the human experience of those unlike themselves, on a deeper level. All great art helps to reveal aspects of the humanity of both its creator and its audience, but through its ability to recreate life with photorealistic integrity, the cinema is the art form with the most revelatory capacity when used correctly. With Balthazar, Bresson is at the height of his powers as an “inquisitor” of the human spirit, and in the film he exposes both evil and purity at the heart of human nature.

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Balthazar was not my first experience with Bresson. I saw Lancelot du Lac (1974) in a class my freshman year of college, but it didn’t have a huge influence on me at the time. I remember thinking that the film was interesting, but it didn’t drive me to seek out more Bresson, nor did I have chance to encounter one of his films again until I sought out Balthazar nearly a decade later. I became aware of the film after seeing the most recent Sight & Sound greatest films poll in 2012. The list, published by the British Film Institute and updated every ten years, is voted on by hundreds of filmmakers, critics, archivists, programmers, and other industry professionals. I’ve enjoyed looking back at the Sight & Sound polls to chart the changing of critical tastes over the decades and also to see how the accepted “canon” of great films has shifted over the years. When I was reading through the 2012 version, I found in the 16th spot a film that I had never heard of before with a provocative French title that caught my eye and captured my imagination. I had no idea what it was about and, my French being more than a little rusty from high school, I didn’t even know what the title meant, but I decided that moment that I needed to see Au Hasard Balthazar. It was probably the best cinematic hunch that I ever acted upon.

I waited for the Criterion Collection to have one of their periodic half-price sales and I purchased Au Hasard Balthazar on DVD in the spring of 2013. In the time between discovering Balthazar and actually seeing it, I had done plenty of reading about the film. After having read critical essays about Bresson in general, and this film in particular, I went into my initial viewing with high expectations that were immediately exceeded. I fell in love with Balthazar immediately. Bresson’s shots of the donkey’s soulful eyes penetrated me on that first viewing. I felt that those eyes contained the wisdom of the ages. I felt that the film contained some key to understanding the mysteries of the Universe. I watched it three times in a week, eventually taking screening notes. A film hadn’t impacted me this much in a long time. I felt like I needed to write my way to the middle of Balthazar, as I had done before with other films that vexed me in this way, but I couldn’t find a way in to the heart of Bresson’s masterpiece.

That summer, I expanded my exploration of Bresson’s work, viewing both The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Mouchette (1967) shortly after my initial experience with Balthazar. I began the process of sketching out a long format essay on the three films, which Bresson made in succession, and their formation of a triptych exploring the role of suffering in the human experience, and its necessity in the process of humans receiving ultimate absolution. My overall thesis was that the films showed an increasingly pessimistic viewpoint on the part of Bresson, depicting increasing instances of human suffering while offering fewer opportunities for salvation. At the time, I simply didn’t have the depth of understanding of Bresson’s Catholic faith to attempt to approach these films from a religious standpoint, but I felt it to be the best path towards understanding them. I ultimately scrapped the project, because I didn’t have the words to begin to adequately describe Balthazar. I still don’t. However, despite my failings to write my way to a full understanding of the film, Balthazar never left my mind. I still watch the film at least twice a year, and there is rarely a week that goes by that its images and themes don’t pop into my head.

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As I said, I still don’t have the words to really describe Au Hasard Balthazar in any meaningful way. In its simple story and minimalist images, the film contains the whole of human experience. Through the eyes of the innocent, naïve Balthazar, we see the true nature of the film’s human characters. Their capacity for love and for malice is showed through their actions toward this harmless, humble beast. Balthazar entered my life at a time when I was beginning to reengage with cinema in a serious way, having started to write about film again only about a year prior to seeing it. I had hoped that my fervor for the film would spark me into writing more lengthy criticism, but instead it pushed me into discovering many other classics of the great 1960s and 70s international art house boom. Before beginning this blog, I hadn’t written anything formal about movies since my inability to work through Au Hasard Balthazar. I would occasionally take some screening notes, or maybe jot a few paragraphs down about a film that I had seen, and I made a habit of creating a top ten films of the year list that I put a lot of thought into, but I didn’t feel able to sit down and really get to the business of writing about movies. Instead, I watched hundreds of films, new and old, but I always came back to Balthazar, each time letting it entrance me the way that it had the very first time. I’ve finally been able to spill a little digital ink on the film, and in a way it’s freeing. I know that I’ll never really be able to fully express my feelings for Au Hasard Balthazar because the film is simply too big. I love too many aspects of the film to ever inventory them all, and its brilliance exists on a level that I am unable to approach. After having been introduced to thousands of films and having spent years studying the medium, it wasn’t until I saw Au Hasard Balthazar that I truly understood the dizzying heights that the cinema could achieve. To me, the film is the Platonic ideal of cinema, conveying the very essence of humanity recorded on film. I am not totally sure that Au Hasard Balthazar is my favorite film ever, though I truly think it may be, but I do know that it is the most important film in my life.