[BE WARNED: this is a critical reading as much as a review. It is long, dense, and contains spoilers]
I haven’t known where to begin with this post. So let me begin with the bit I haven’t had trouble expressing for the last two weeks.
HOLY MOTORS is the BEST FILM I HAVE SEEN THIS YEAR. It is an utterly mad, beguiling vaudeville work that sticks up two fingers at the established conventions of cinematic storytelling that features one of the most dazzling performances from a leading actor you will ever see, EVER.
Unfortunately that doesn’t look much like film criticism. A little more effort is required. In this case, 2 weeks of reading other reviews and trying to work out why this nonsensical film left me so manically enthused about it.
Well, details first. This is the handiwork of Leos Carax (AKA Alex Oscar Dupont), one-time darling of French cinema who hasn’t confused or bemused anyone for about thirteen years, because he hasn’t made a film in that time. This sets him firmly back on that pedestal. It is many things (most of which Carax denies), but most of all, I saw it as a meditation on an unfamiliar reality, which we can no longer absorb, only vicariously, voyeuristically indulge in as part of an invisible virtual zoo, in which the real world is caged and we are spectators behind pixelated walls.
If you were going to burden Holy Motors with a plot, it would be this: Monsieur Oscar, a plain and respectable man in a suit, leaves a house we assume to be his, and gets into a white stretch limousine one can only assume belongs to him, wherein he leaves all that tiresome stuff about identity behind and uses the vast resources of the dressing room his car is fitted out as to become, well, anyone.
This is the cornerstone of the film. Denis Lavant’s performance as Monsieur Oscar is a clinical masterclass in physical performance. His unusual, expansive face becomes a fleshy canvas, and it is only rarely that we see the bare skin and bone beneath the various protheses and expressions he wears. Every time he steps in and out of the that limousine he has reinvented himself. As Carax himself has said, the film exists in the space between reinvention and reincarnation- words which, in French, blur their meaning to point where they have the same, ambiguous intent. Everyone will have their own portrayal they like the most, but the two that stood out for me were the fabulous Monsieur Merde, an impish, mute tramp with the worst oral fixation anyone could imagine- chewing compulsively on flowers, soil, cash, Eva Mendes’ hair and some poor woman’s fingers. This is perhaps the most visually compelling performance, as everything one could ascribe a value or a price to is subject to the valuation of Mnsr. Merde’s tongue, which tears everything to pieces for the sake of his own temporary fixation with it- an interesting comment on the capitalist underpinnings of this industry of vacuous entertainment. The other is the performance with his own daughter- one of several families he appears to belong to- in a performance shocking in its naturalistic menace, as he picks his daughter from a party, encouraging, remonstrating, and finally punishing her before dropping out of her existence and back into his work. The episode, one of the shorter in the film, is astonishing for it simple power. Without any of his usual contorting and zaniness, the audience was disturbed by Lavant’s extraordinary calm under which his daughter buckles in guilt. She has lied to him. He punishes her. She has no idea of the extent of Oscar’s inventions.
Monsieur Oscar is an artist performing constantly, to an audience he cannot see; thus, he cannot know when they are not watching, so he must perform all the time. There is an extremely curious throwaway line that goes far to suggest an answer, though really all it does is provoke more questions. Only once is Mnsr. Oscar’s private space violated, and that is by his boss, a strange, birthmarked man played by Michael Picolli, who has come to check on his welfare. It is when he mentions that the cameras could be anywhere, any size, that a curious dystopian possibility emerges- that there is an unseen technological element where the mechanics of cinema have been reduced to the smallest size- the point where the actor can no longer know if he is being filmed. “I must continue to perform. The performance is my life” is Oscar’s response- a laconic riposte to the macabre joke of his personality, even his own name, being devoted to the false gods of a distant audience indulging in its passive powers of surveillance. Lavant’s portrayal of Oscar deserves the eponymous award, no doubt- if he is even nominated, I will be flabbergasted. It isn’t in the Academy’s nature to be kind to such films.
Such films are rarely appreciated because they are, by their nature, inaccessible. Any film that starts with the director waking up in a strange bedroom and tearing down the forested wallpaper (an interesting take on not seeing the wood for the trees) and ending up in an old cinema, the people rapt at early projections of the human body in action. This sequence of movements, long-dead performers reincarnated on the modern screen is the recurring motif Carax is aiming at- a single reel of film, a single performance in itself, containing the recurrent culture and reanimation of performances that have long since passed. We, the audience, are indulging in acts of life that we reinvent in our minds, spanning the breadth of imagination and technology.
And from the oldest elements of cinema, we find the cutting edge too, in a motion capture sequence that would leave Andy Serkis scratching his head. Its an extraordinary thing and a sequence the audience is quite unprepared for- Oscar has just finished playing a stooped crone begging beneath the Eiffel tower. As he is driven to an anonymous looking building, he dons this glittering skinsuit, with no indication of what he is about to do. The reflective markers that decorate the suit have no use outside of the darkened studio, and as a result we do not recognise them. Oscar’s costume is useless outside of its environment, and yet the performance never stops. Once inside, Oscar completes several tasks- modelling a soldier running with a gun, a rather extraordinary display of skill with some martial arts weapons, and an erotic encounter with another performer unlike anything you have ever seen. The performance is simply a rendering for some bizarre monster-coitus on the screen behind them, but the rendering becomes the performance as CGI elements contort the performers bodies into impossible positions. The foreplay is passionate and aggressive- fondling genitals non-existent beneath lycra suits, pleasuring a creature that exists only on the screen behind them, the limits of human physiognomy no limit to Carax and the contortions of his performers. If one is looking for classic cinema naturalism, you’ll be disappointed. Carax revels in the ideas of Brecht- the performance is bare, unashamed and self-aware- daring the audience to enjoy a performance, pure and unadultered by any suspension of disbelief.
All throughout the currents between illusion and reality are bordered and barred. There lingers an uncomfortable irony when Edith Scob’s chauffeur Celine implores Oscar to look at how beautiful Paris is that night are muffled by glass and the rumble of the engine. In a famous Parisian graveyard, the endless tombs are no longer marked by names and dates, but pleas to “Visit my website!”. For these people, their lives are supposed to have been sustained by virtual immortality; instead, their deaths are rendered meaningless as simply the physical element of themselves surrenders itself and blogs are no longer updated, profiles are no longer maintained and the decrepitude of the virtual world engulfs their small, wasted efforts like ivy on a grave.
The level of organisation and control Oscar has on his world is never made clear. Sometimes he is late, trying to make up time. Sometimes he has time to kill. He gets things wrong and has to ad-lib to make up for it. He is killed at least once; almost certainly twice. The funniest episode takes place in a warehouse, in which he is briefed to dispatch a low-level enforcer and perform plastic surgery on him… to make him look exactly like the man Oscar is disguised as. As he completes the transformation, the not-quite-dead henchman returns the blow- nearly killing Oscar in the process, and leaving him in the very odd position of being discovered murdered by the man he just murdered, the two looking exactly the same. In the shortest episode, that remains completely unexplained, Oscar sees someone on the street of the Champs Elysees as he drives past. For a second, he is out of control, screaming to Scob to stop the car, he runs out, takes a pistol, takes aim- he aims at his first incarnation, the businessman who left his house and stepped into the limousine that morning- he shoots himself, dressed as another man, as the bodyguards around his doppelganger dispatch his unprepared, un-costumed form. He is riddled with bullets. And then, he is back in the car. An ambiguous cut leaves the entire episode a mystery. Did that just happen? Can Oscar only be killed by his own incarnations? If so, then for Oscar death is as much a part of the performance as his living selves.
Does Oscar’s death happen? It certainly seems to affect him and his colleagues. Celine, the chauffeur, certainly fears for his life on the occasions he puts it at risk. Lavant is growing older, and this sense of agedness beneath the mask is evident each time he slides his weary body into the limousine. Kylie Minogue’s curious performance, performed in English and French without hesitation or grating deference to her celebrity, is a key element to this. Like Lavant, she performs from the back of her own Limousine (part, as we slowly discover, of a fleet of sentient limos, working for a certain company called Holy Motors- do these performers (or their limousines) have contracts, and trade unions, and agents?). She has had intimate relations with Lavant, and she hasn’t seen him for a long time. Like Lavant, she meets her death at the hands of performance, but Lavant’s reaction of howling grief suggests that this death is quite final. Oscar, who seems to have outlasted his time, has abilities beyond those of his colleagues, and for that reason he is a hounded man, unable to ever end the performance, even for the sake of death.
So what are we supposed to leave this film with? The entire film is question on the nature and bounds of performance, and how it reacts to a reality that is itself partially performed, a partial masque enacted in chatrooms and voyeuristic role-play. Oscar and his ilk are performers driven to perform by a lack of reality to return to- we are witness to gaps in their performance, lapses that may be as much part of the performance as any soliloquy. It answers no questions. It offers no introspection or cod-philosophy. What it does do is open one’s eyes to the natural boundaries cinema sets itself- boundaries like plot, character development, mise-en-scene, theme, and an obvious structure, and deftly proves that we are in thrall to the rigours of the non-imagination. Carax neatly demonstrates the sheer virtuosic force of the film maker, armed with one of the most potent displays of brilliance any director or audience could ask from a performer. Lavant owns this film. It is worth seeing just so you can nod your head when someone mentions how good this performance was. But most of all, you should see it so you can come out of the cinema, utterly confused, twisted and charmed by Carax’s vision, and feel your eyes opened to the plasticity of Eden, and smell the world on the breeze outside.