Holy Motors [Carax, 2012]
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. – But what if there’s no more beholder?
You can hear Mssr. Carax cackling through all of Holy Motors. It’s a movie made from the darkest, most hateful regions of the body, its vitriol constantly spilling out of the screen. Carax loudly and flamboyantly announces the death of Everything. Holy Motors is angry, feral, spiteful, and ridiculous. It spits in your face, steals your handkerchief and tells you to wipe it off with your sleeve. It’s a film of boiling attitude, snarling and not afraid to bite.
But isn’t hate just an anxious desire for love? As I look back, the vitriol of Holy Motors seems to turn itself inside out. There’s a lot of death happening in Holy Motors, but only the death of the Way Things Have Been. Carax isn’t inventing a new type of cinema, but he is trying to kill off an old one. After it condemns the history of film, it requires you to imagine the new future. Holy Motors begins with the most elaborate and darkly exhilarating joke in recent memory. A packed audience sits in front of a movie that we hear but do not see – they’re dead. But that’s not the joke. Carax wants us to hope that his movie will resurrect this fake audience. Of course it doesn’t. But it does require us to be alive. This opening gesture is the core of Holy Motors. With maniacal enthusiasm and profound spite, Carax cleans out the tradition of commercial moviemaking, clearing space for a cinema that celebrates and rewards those of us who are alive.
The film considers a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he makes his way around Paris in a limousine, fulfilling various engagements referred to as “appointments.” Oscar is constantly changing shape, but not through magic. Each time he emerges from the limo he is a different character, built from the costume and prosthetics warehouse that appears inside the car – an elegant homage to acting as well as a sturdy structural mechanism. Oscar has “appointments” as a father, a beggar woman, a motion-capture actor, an accordionist, etc. etc. It is said that Carax devised the episodic structure to suit the numerous ideas he’s had during his last dozen filmless years. Be sure, Holy Motors benefits from this. Carax’s work has had a tendency to slouch under ponderous, Romantic pressure. The format of Holy Motors allows his zany episodes to assault the audience at full density.
Some “appointments” make the light bouncing off the screen feel like lightning. In the most crowdpleasing segment, Oscar morphs into “Monsieur Merde,” a lurching, feral gnomish creature that climbs out of the sewers, bites off some fingers, and abducts Eva Mendes. All the while, a pretentious photographer blissfully documents the scene on old-fashioned film, shouting “SO WEIRD!!!” The episode succinctly demonstrates the growing cliché of High/Low juxtaposition and addresses our cultural obsession with beauty and ugliness with a cinematic wallop. One of the film’s most electric images is of Merde, naked and sporting a raging hard-on, lying down to sleep on Mendes’ lap as she sings “All the Pretty Little Horses” to him. Ugliness destroys and corrupts beauty, but ugliness is also just an invention of Oscar’s perpetual theater.
It’s fruitless to name every effective episode, since virtually all of them work on some level and most of them are genius miniatures. As I began to understand the structure of the film when watching, it first seemed like a cop-out. Breaking down the movie into short bursts of zaniness is one way to avoid making solid observations about anything. And it’s what makes the film palatable to lazy or ignorant filmgoers. All of this seemed like a concession to commercial dictum.
I was so fucking wrong. The episodic structure does allow the film to be more accessible, but Carax is so frightened of clarity and cliché that he blissfully rejects the need to unite the segments with anything but character and tone. In fact, he’s ballsy enough to give away the entire point of the film about halfway in, revealing that Oscar is a kind of actor working in a series of non-filmed films. Carax renders every bit of plot action meaningless as a tool for manipulating our narrative expectations. But that isn’t a part of the Newness that Holy Motors is celebrating, it’s a part of the Oldness that it’s killing. Carax obliterates any narrative stakes that he might have constructed in the interest of demonstrating their worthlessness. The best films teach us how to experience them. Here, Carax shows us a cinema that can free itself from traditional procedures and remain engaging as an experience.
After the stakes are eliminated, we are given three mercilessly devastating episodes. We know that there is no narrative purpose in them, but they still work emotionally. In fact, Carax demonstrates his hitherto unseen skill with designing bold emotional scenarios and executing them with concision. First, Oscar plays a father who picks his daughter up from a party. From there, we witness a delicate tug-of-war between the lying, insecure daughter and her loving but insensitive father. Later, Oscar changes into an old man who lies down to die and talks with his niece. It’s the best episode in the film, deeply sad and (ultimately) brilliantly comic. Death wafts over the entire movie – here, Carax is allowed to address it directly. At the end of the scene, one of the most mystical, liberating moments in [hyperbole alert] cinema history occurs. Oscar, apparently dead with his grieving niece and dog next to him, rises from the bed and quietly tiptoes out of the room. He asks his “niece” what her name is and tells her that he has another appointment. She says the same thing back to him. Again, by this time we understand the structure of the film and we know that Oscar is acting through life, fulfilling different roles and characters as they’re demanded. He has “died” a couple times already, including one very memorable gangster sequence. But that doesn’t stop a moment like this from succeeding.
If “pure cinema,” whatever it means, has ever existed, it’s in this moment. It addresses the emotional gravity and potential of the movies while elegantly addressing the fact that they’re make-believe. This is the resurrection that we’ve been waiting for. It’s Carax’s thematic answer to the dead audience. According to his argument, the audience could all be like Oscar, acting in a perpetual production. But the deathbed scene proves that there’s no such thing as death in the movies. There’s no such thing as coincidence, either. It’s all written and produced and edited and projected and consumed as art or entertainment or whatever. Cinema is dead but it’s also alive and been dead and resurrected and dying and doing jumping jacks.
The third episode of heartbreak involves Kylie Minogue. Admittedly, she sings a limping song, but it’s executed in such a thrilling, seamless way that I can’t care much. This scene was where I first acknowledged the Ghost of the Nouvelle Vague. Minogue sports a short, blonde wig and wistfully walks around an abandoned building with Oscar. Her character’s name is Jean – like Jean Seberg. The set looks like Last Year at Marienbad if Atilla the Hun designed it. Pieces of mannequin are stacked and piled on the floor, the ancient ruins of ancient style. The revolutions of Resnais and Godard and Varda are dusty, old, and strewn about the floor. Carax destroys and celebrates the Nouvelle Vague – just as they did to their ancestors. Like Oscar rising from his deathbed, Jean sheds her coat and wig before jumping to her death. She becomes a new character and we can expect that she rises and walks away from her suicide moments after we leave. The cinema is an immortal, impermanent universe – stylistically and otherwise.
Holy Motors ends like a prayer and the title of the film is explained. There is holiness in the way things move. A spirit in the machinery. A soul in the mechanical. Thing is, motors are made to repeat the same process over and over and over again. In a truly grand comedy, the final joke is that things will always stay the same. Dying and Living and Working and Eating and Loving and Begging and Watching and Dying Again and Cetera. Carax knows that revolutions (including his own) can only be so big. Holy Motors is a triumphant punch in the nuts. But nothing tells us we’re alive better than this kind of pain.