Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Critical Analysis: Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Holy Motors has a limited release in Australia – and here in Sydney you can catch it at Dendy Newtown and Palace Verona Cinemas – on August 23.

Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s return to the cinema thirteen years after his previous feature endeavour, Pola X, stirred plenty of excited anticipation amongst film buffs when it was announced as part of the 2012 Cannes line-up. As I had not seen any of Carax’s films and knew nothing about the man, this was not a feeling I shared. All it took was some Cannes buzz, a WTF trailer, and an exclusive late-addition single-session screening at Sydney Film Festival to have me hooked. Despite going in with much anticipation, it still managed to completely abolish any expectations I had. I called the film "a masterfully crafted, visually dazzling, wildly inventive and provocative work of art..." in my review but it has also led to claims of being "one of the most original films of the century, and a reminder of the things that cinema has to offer."

Holy Motors is one of those rare films that evolve over subsequent viewings. What has interested me over the last week has been the fact that my second look at Carax’s warped masterpiece was completely different to the one I had at SFF. While in awe of the bizarre series of episodes I was witnessing, trying to coming to terms with how weird but wonderful this film was, and soaking up the atmosphere of the cinema – with an audience I can only assume were just as in awe as I was - I did not have the mental capacity to interpret very much meaning, and what Carax’s intents and purposes were. It didn’t matter.

The second time around I focused more on interpreting the ideas being presented within the images. Searching for meaning is an almost-futile exercise. It doesn’t even matter if I have interpreted the film correctly, and honestly, I have no idea whether I am even on the right wavelength, because the process of consideration itself reaps reward. Discussing the film with others and desiring to return to it again and again is the reason this is one of the most significant cinematic events of the year so far. Despite all this, you should know that this film is not for everybody, so try and keep your expectations in check. Go in with an open mind and be ready to give in to anything.

NOTE: The rest of this analysis contains spoilers. If you have not seen the film I urge you not to read any further. You can find my spoiler-free review from Sydney Film Festival linked above. The idea of this analysis was to probe into some of the film’s mysteries and attempt to make sense of what Carax was trying to do. It is impossible not to disclose plot details, and I strongly urge you to try and remain completely in the dark going in for the first time.

We assume, when we are introduced to Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant, Lovers on the Bridge), that he is leaving his home for the day to be escorted to work. We watch him climb into the back of a white stretch limousine. We soon discover that Oscar operates out the back of this limousine – his mode of transportation, his office, his dressing room and his restaurant – and is chaperoned around Paris by Celine (Edith Scob, Eyes Without A Face). He is assigned a series of appointments where he embodies characters for the entertainment of invisible audiences.

These roles vary from an old beggar woman, to a motion-capture exercise, which evolves from weapon-toting to having simulated sex, to Merde (a character reprised from Carax’s contribution to Tokyo), a disgusting flower/money/hair-eating, sewer-dwelling, gibberish-speaking leprechaun. Oscar also portrays a scarred, knife-wielding assassin, an elderly man on his hotel deathbed, and in the film’s most extravagant sequence, leads a marching band on an accordion. Along the way Merde kidnaps Eva Mendes’ model, and Oscar, out of character, runs into an old flame, portrayed by Kylie Minogue. Both of these well-publicised cameos are interesting to say the least.

So where to begin when discussing this film? Lets start with the opening sequence – a cinema full of people staring at a screen. Unusually, we see the audience from front-on, as if the screen is staring back at them. They seem to be ghosts, either dead or asleep. Is anything being projected? Perhaps the cinema is darkened in preparation for a film? Something audiences have not seen before. Perhaps it is screening the nitrate prints from the dawn of cinema we are privileged to in the film's opening shots, but in this case it could be that the audience has no recognition of this type of film anymore.

Are audiences bored by what is being offered up by modern filmmakers? If Carax is attempting to embody 'cinema', and is he concerned by how the advances in technology has affected spectatorship and what viewers desire? In a modern world where people are regularly immersed in screens, is cinema spectatorship as it once was - a uniquely immersing experience - now dead? I can only imagine that audiences certainly aren’t as receptive as they used to be and certainly don't respect the cinema experience as they once did. For example, a film shot and projected in 4:3 ratio, now prompts audience members to assume it has been projected incorrectly. Technological advancements – the ability to purchase films off iTunes (not to mention download) and then watch them on smaller portable devices (phones, tablets and laptops), has killed the cinema going experience. Also, with a larger volume of films being released in 3D, and with films being shot on digital cameras and being projected digitally, cinema as an art form is losing its credibility.

Soon enough a man, credited as ‘The Dreamer’ and portrayed by Carax himself, wakes from a deep sleep and begins to explore the confines of the room. He finds a door hidden in one of the walls (a wallpaper with a dense tree line - symbolic I think) and this corridor leads to the rear of the theatre. I took Carax's character here to be the master conjurer, the creator of something that would awaken this audience and remind them why they are in the cinema. With Holy Motors Carax seeks to not only create a vibrant, confounding and provocative work, but a work that comments on cinema's recent transitions and the concerning state of the world we embody, subtly blending his commentary throughout the series of neatly ordered episodes.

It isn’t until the end of the film that we realize that the Oscar we are initially introduced to (credited as 'the banker') was one of his appointments – the one he embodied overnight. I won’t discuss where Oscar ends up the following night, but one can confidently assume that the only time we see Oscar as himself is in the back of the limousine. He looks world-weary, half in and out of costume and usually with a drink in his hand. But, how about the episode where he embodies the role of the father who picks up his daughter from a party? On a second look, this appears to be a genuine diversion from his appointments.

Who was the young girl? Was she actually Oscar's daughter or was she employed by the firm too? Oscar, a man capable of becoming anyone he wants to, is disappointed when he learns that she had been at the party and rather than socialize with her friends, hid out in the bathroom. We see her sprinkling glitter in her hair to disguise this fact. When he learns of this he rouses on her, exclaiming that she wonders why she isn't popular, but then doesn't try to be outgoing and do what typical teenagers do. Learning what we know about Oscar – and he informs her that he has been busy with appointments all day, the only person he divulges this information to – this is an acceptable reaction.

This is the only time that Oscar drives himself. There are a few peculiar exchanges between Oscar and Celine before this episode, which forces me to question whether this was a scheduled break due to an obligation he had. They are on a tight schedule the entire time. Does this man have a life, a wife and child, outside of his appointments? Where does he drop her off? It is presumably her house, but is it also his own? With the exception of this episode Oscar’s only evident sense of reality is in the back of the limousine, effectively the means for Oscar to embody the characters he is assigned. He asks this girl why she lied, and she responds by saying that both of them would have been happier if she did.

Now, in this digital age, information is at our fingertips. The world is a circus. Everybody is acting as something they're not and trying to get ahead of everyone else. People lie to make themselves and others feel better, and often shape themselves through social media, building fake personas of who they want to appear to be. What if the world was full of actors and artists like Carax's Paris? It is an amusing thought. 

This digital age, dominated by scarily-frequent technological advancements and where most of my generation interact through social media (Facebook/Twitter). No one calls anymore, but text and email, and many are so immersed in their multimedia personalities that they fail to live their lives.

Reminiscing on this, I was doubly fascinated and a little depressed. The headstones Merde runs past while devouring bouquets of flowers have web addresses on them. Not names. Who were these people, if not how they represented themselves through online media, or a blog such as this?

Carax has had to remake himself as a filmmaker, shooting Holy Motors on a digital camera against his will. It looks beautiful. Some of the lengthy takes are extraordinary and he has transformed Paris into this eerily surreal metropolis. It is simultaneously a not-so-subtle indictment of the technology and evidence of it being used very well. 

Oscar has a natural talent for performance, and the head of the company he works for, played by Michael Piccoli, pays him a visit during the film. He claims that Oscar’s performances are beginning to lack conviction, and the unseen audiences he performs for are less than impressed too. As Oscar claims the ‘beauty of the act’ is diminishing, and admits to missing the cameras. He reminisces on a time when cameras were bigger than he was, and laments about how small they are now. In fact, they seem to be invisible. From this, I begin to think about reality shows like Big Brother. People seem to love watching them these days. Can it be argued that people prefer to watch themselves and others like them captured in real time by invisible cameras in the comfort of their home than travel to a cinema to escape their lives through a film?

In Holy Motors' unforgettable finale, attention is returned to technology, and the passing of the old. If one accepts that it is not necessarily Oscar who is the heart of the film, but his white limousine, then further interesting readings can be made. I got it into my head that the limousines existed as 'vehicles of inspiration' and though they are showy and attention-grabbing, like Oscar on occasions, they are now outdated, like celluloid and film cameras. Carax has commented - and this is courtesy of the production notes supplied by Icon - on the role of the limousines, and some levels of meaning he has tried to impose into his film: 

The film is therefore a form of science fiction, in which humans, beasts and machines are on the verge of extinction - “sacred motors” linked together by a common fate and solidarity, slaves to an increasingly virtual world. a world from which visible machines, real experiences and actions are gradually disappearing.

There are some instances I won't even try and explain, but I enjoyed watching Oscar take on new characters (an impromptu accordion interlude), recreate previous ones - note how Oscar exhales "merde" (which means "shit" in French) when he realises he must become Merde again - and even end characters (the old man in the hotel). In addition to the aforementioned diversion with the young girl, Oscar runs into a former colleague (Kylie Minogue) and accompanies her to a rooftop location where she awaits her next appointment. As they walk through a former department store in stages of redevelopment they walk over destroyed mannequins lining the floor and Kylie starts into a sombre song reflecting on 'who they were'. 

On the topic of ending characters, at one point Oscar jumps out of his limousine wearing a beanie wrapped in what looks like barbed wire and shoots a man. This man is referred to as 'the banker' and looks to be the same character that Oscar embodied at the start of the film. It is also played by Lavant. Fascinating. This is a film that possesses both playful vaudevillian qualities, and one that is quite sombre and morose and I am certain that Carax has structured it like he has on purpose.

To finish, because this is getting long-winded, but honestly debate could go on for thousands of words more, arguably the highlight of Holy Motors is Denis Lavant. He has astonishing versatility and with the exception of Pola X, he has appeared in each of Carax's films. It dawned on me during the second viewing that he also starred in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, where he was sensational too. Holy Motors is one of the rare films where you have no idea what to expect at any time and it is strikingly original. It is wonderfully paced; always enthralling, never surrendering intrigue but always keeping a viewer guessing. It is an absolute blast, and I find it hard to believe that any film will knock this off the top spot come the end of the year.

My Rating: ★★★★★ (A)


  1. You definitely have me intrigued! I skipped most of the review because of the spoilers -- I'll keep an eye out for this film when it makes its way to the states.

  2. **Warning - contains spoilers - don't read this if you plan to see the film**

    I saw 'Holy Motors' a couple of weeks ago at the New Zealand Film Festival in Wellington. I sat entranced throughout, wondering what Oscar would do next. I got sick immediately after seeing the film, and maybe that was a factor in making the film seem a bit like a hallucination. The film moves along at a good pace and each of Oscar's assignments brings a surprise. A memorable scene for me was the one with Eva Mendes in the sewer - the most bizarre pietà I have ever seen. Having got the pietà reference, I wondered what other allusions I hadn't understood. I hadn't noticed that the man Oscar kills at the outdoor café was his earlier incarnation as the Banker. I also wondered if the vignette with the daughter was 'real' - hard to tell in this film what was real and what was an assignment. I want to see the film again, as I'm sure many things passed me by in the first viewing.

    Having now read a few analyses of the film, it seems no one else is much the wiser about its meaning. Normally this would be a bit frustrating, but in the case of 'Holy Motors', it doesn't bother me at all. It was brilliant, Denis Lavant was brilliant, Edith Scob as Celine was an excellent foil for Oscar's character - even Kylie Minogue was good in her part (her French was great too!). This is one of the most thought-provoking, bizarre movies I have ever seen. I loved it.