Holy Motors: a provocative sci-fi

27 September 2012

With its reflexive focus on performance and a seemingly dense fabric of intertextual references, Holy Motors, the first feature film directed by Leos Carax since 1999′s Pola X, is one for cinephiles. Or at least, one for the type of cinephile who enjoys firstly to tease out nods to other works and secondly to note them down in writing, thereby keeping apace with the film itself and, perhaps, demonstrating one’s level of cineliteracy. On another level, of course, the film plays out Herzog’s famous quip that “cinema is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates”: an often dazzling arrangement of hermetic scenarios, the film might be enjoyed equally by anyone who doesn’t get its many references, carried along by the sheer energies on display.

Structurally reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveller, Holy Motors follows Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he exits his plush, guarded suburban home one morning to go to work. Chauffeured around Paris in a white limousine by Céline (Edith Scob), Monsieur Oscar is told he has nine appointment for the day. These, as it turns out, consist of roleplaying obligations, whereby Monsieur Oscar has to fulfill various societal roles by assuming the identity of others: an elderly female beggar, some virtual simulation practitioner, a sympathetic dad, a dying uncle, a murderer and so on… As this central performer, Lavant is exhilarating. His is a remarkably physical kind of acting; leading a band of accordion players through a cathedral during the film’s intermission becomes an awesome act of brutishness. Absurdly, Lavant’s gentlest moment in the film might be when he rests his head on a supermodel’s (Eva Mendes) lap, his naked erection on full display.

Before we meet our protagonist, however, the film begins in a film theatre, the silhouetted outlines of a packed audience facing us like a mirror. We cut to a hotel room, in which Carax himself awakens and rises from a bed. Sounds jar with the mise-en-scène, however, and mysterious things are afoot: though the soundscape we hear is of a shipyard, we see an airport runway outside the hotel, the landing plane close enough to be heard… only we don’t hear it. Carax walks across the room; the camera pans with him. On the far wall, we see a forest that looks virtually real. Carax inserts his finger – an inexplicable key – into a peephole, and the wall opens up for him. He emerges in an old film theatre and looks down to the stalls from the circle. Walking down the aisle is a toddler. Claustrophobic in the same way as was the opening to Fellini’s (1963), Holy Motors opens up thereafter similarly: outward and inward at the same time, unfolding not only with hints to other films but by drawing our attention to cinematic language itself, and to the experiential element of film-watching as a deeply personal matter: the film challenges categorisation, marketability, traditional notions of narrative expectation and so on.

Somewhere along the way of Monsieur Oscar’s day, we lose count of his tasks, unable to decide what constitutes an appointment and what doesn’t – especially after Monsieur Oscar seemingly goes rogue and kills a doppelganger credited as “banker”. (Perhaps too eager to forge intertextual links, I counted eight and a half appointments overall…) It’s equally difficult to figure out whether Carax starts the film with the weirdest episodes and they get more and more ‘ordinary’ as it goes on, or whether we as an audience simply adjust to the rug-pulls and the disparity between sketches as a structural device. Tonally, however, I do think the film becomes less bawdy as it develops, more melancholic – by the point at which Lavant kicks a mannequin’s head in the now-disused La Samaritaine department store (where the film’s penultimate episode is shot), I was the only one in the cinema who dared laugh.

This tonal drift seems deliberate. The film isn’t just about images and our visceral responses to them. It seems to point towards a social existence that is defined today by instability – or rather, instabilities: in terms of temporality, of spatiality, of identity. The most familiar setting to which Monsieur Oscar and the camera repeatedly return, for instance, is the stretch limousine, a conspicuous mobile world from which outsiders are overtly excluded and into which they cannot see. Inside, though, this TARDIS-like vessel is marked increasingly by angst, confusion, exhaustion and dismay. Both navigator Céline and passenger Oscar are, by the end of the film, implicated as mere pawns in a system governed by lost opportunities and unfulfilled wishes. At one point after acting out a death, Oscar is about to leave the apartment like some escort, though has second thoughts: turning around, he tells the girl before whom he has just ‘died’ that he has to leave for another appointment. “Me too,” she says, thereby suggesting this escort-like business is not serving clients, but is run by them.

[Originally posted on 19 September at Front Row Reviews.]