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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.