A Film By Leos Carax
The first shot in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, besides the brief images of motion studies by Étienne-Jules Marey that pre-date cinema’s existence, is of an audience. They are mute, silent, perhaps asleep, perhaps dead, as a film unfolds before them. It’s hard not to read such as a provocative image as a comment about the state of cinema, especially as Carax himself awakes behind the theater in a small room, staring out toward the frame of reality, the window, ignoring the digital one, the computer, before peering at the audience below from the balcony. The easy suggestion would follow then that the film that follows is going to be one that wakes the audience, and thus saves cinema. But he doesn’t believe he can awake this audience—this is a film as much more about “Fin de Cinema” than it is about how to save them, less a love letter than a “fuck you” to it.
Holy Motors was the runaway success of the Cannes Film Festival, receiving no awards but certainly one of the most praised, most talked about films. The first feature film by Carax since 1999’s Pola X, it’s a film about many things, mostly Carax’s own contradictory relationship to cinema. It’s filled with wild, bizarre imagery meant to shock into laughter, sometimes delight. But its depressive attitude toward cinema, even among its “wild and crazy” sequences, seems juvenile at best, and its schematic structure never makes the imaginative leap. Every time Carax might reach for something transcendent, he feels content, no, compelled to undercut himself and hold us back. Some of that is certainly by design, but it makes the film feel false. The more I knew what Holy Motors was, the less I found myself enjoying it.
That’s a damn shame, for at least the first thirty minutes, I found myself elated by the film’s truly unique narrative. After the film’s prologue, we meet Oscar, played by Carax regular Denis Lavant. Oscar is picked up in a white limo by his chauffer Celine (Edith Scob; Carax holds the obvious reference to Eyes Without a Face to the very end, though why he needs to make it remains elusive to me) and is told to prepare for his first of nine appointments. We see him applying makeup—the limo is full of props and mirrors—and when he emerges out of the car, he is now an old woman, hobbling along asking for change. He returns to the cab, prepares to the next appointment, where he wears a motion capture suit, and performs a series of acrobatic moves before performing a “sex” scene with a fellow motion capture performer (we only see the result of their work briefly, a bizarre moment of orgasmic pleasure between two CGI demons).
I don’t want to get into too many details, but it turns out that yes, Oscar is an actor. For what films, we never see. To what audience, we don’t know. Sound stages have been replaced with the streets of Paris. Oscar takes no pleasure in his work when we see him outside his roles, though he certainly embodies the very different characters (including a hilarious sequence in which Levant revives his role from Carax’s segment of Tokyo!) with much gusto. Holy Motors’s “segments” are taken from various projects Carax attempted to film over the years, but never could get financed. In many ways, the film becomes a “greatest hits” collection—violent murder, a father-daughter story, a musical number (a very bland one, with an even blander Kylie Minogue trying to convey some sense of loss but simply looks lost), and, in easily the film’s most fun and truly wondrous scene, a symphony of accordions recorded in a long tracking shot around a church.
However, the problem with theses sequences is not that they aren’t exciting, but they are meaningless. Because we know the structure of the film, and later we know what Oscar does what he does (Michel Piccoli explains it in a wasted cameo), the evidential “stakes” to the segments is always restrained by the fact that we know none of it matters. There’s no consequence to anything we see, and especially because Carax is willing to interrupt his pathos for choice moments of humor, he undercuts the power of his images. Again, I think this is perhaps what Carax wants to do—he doesn’t want us to approach cinema as we had before, mainly because of his very fraught anger toward the digital revolution (Holy Motors is “ironically” shot on high-definition, and it “ironically” captures the beauty of Paris). His most strange images—Eva Mendes singing a lullaby to a grotesque man with an enlarged member, a reveal of the victim of a murder, monkeys—are made without purpose (and none of them are made to connect to each other). The images simply sit on the screen, and perhaps this may be why the audience watching the film looks dead as well.
So much of Holy Motors feels like it could be part of a luscious fever dream of a movie, but its reliance on a schematic structure, on undercutting itself, and sarcastic tone makes it feel more inert than anything else. Here’s a director who can strike me with a pure energetic force when he’s putting his entire work into his cinema (see: Boy Meets Girl). Thank goodness for Lavant (as well as Carax’s makeup team), as he pours his heart and soul into each role he is given. He jumps and twists with boundless energy, and then radically changes his entire approach to encapsulate his next character, all while giving us a meta-text about Oscar’s emotional journey and his relationship to his work. Cinema may be dead and Carax might be out of energy, but Lavant is an angelic force and very much alive.