Holy Motors is a cinephile odyssey, taking its viewers on a linear, perhaps cyclical journey through a series of variations on film history, performance, and identity. Or, with its continually shifting interplays between character and situation, we might think of it as a live-action replay of the ultimate meta-cartoon, Duck Amuck. The set-up is deceptively simple: we first meet Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as a businessman leaving his lavish home for work, waving goodbye to his loving family, and being collected by the driver of his white stretch limo, Céline (Édith Scob). On the seat next to him are the details of nine assignments he must complete today. Each one requires a different disguise and costume, and sends M. Oscar out of the car, onto the streets of Paris and into a different performance, for no visible audience (except us), and to no obvious purpose. We watch as he goes about his daily business of acting the roles that may keep families, business, art running from day to day. But we’re never sure of his motives or his masters, nor whether there is a real M. Oscar underneath all of the layers of performance.Each time I recall this film, it changes its shape. I remember a different fragment of its many guises or focus on a particular scene. I hope, then, that it will lend itself to the “randomisation” process (for more examples, see here). As Cristina Álvarez López put it, the sheer multiplicity of films like Holy Motors asks that we “gain entry to the them from some small, intimate corner” rather than trying to summarise their structures and over-arching meanings. Here’s how it works: I use a random number generator to give me the timings of a set of framegrabs from the film (I usually take three images as a sample, but in honour of this film’s magnificence, and the number of assignments undertaken by its protagonist, I’m taking nine shots from Holy Motors). This is not to suggest that the film itself is random: however strange its component parts might be, they are thematically, conceptually and visually linked together in a satisfying way. I hope that randomisation here pushes me to find corners of the film that I hadn’t necessarily thought of using as a way in to the film.
The generator has given me the following timings; I’ll take frame grabs from the 5th, 23rd, 32nd, 48th, 53rd, 78th, 86th, 100th, and 104th minutes of the film. That means that we begin with:
Holy Motors begins with a prologue in which a man finds a secret door in a wall of his house; using a key that looks to be a prosthesis of his index finger, he passes through the door and finds a cinema filled with transfixed (some might say ‘comatose’) spectators of an unseen film. We’re not sure what it can all mean, but the fact that the man is played by the film’s director, Leos Carax, tells us that this is a meta-moment of self-reflection, a dream of the movie’s primal scene; you can just about make out the infant who is toddling up the red-lit aisle of the theatre, like a child in the Lumière Brothers’ Premiers pas de Bebe, or a child from one of the chronophotographic exercises by Etienne-Jules Marey that pepper the film. The cinema may therefore be a spatial sketch of Carax’s consciousness, his formative experiences, his cinema-shaped mind. The angle is vertiginous as he looks out from a balcony overlooking the auditorium. It looks woozily dangerous, not a site of comforting rapture. The spectators are uniform in their utter stillness. We don’t see what they’re watching, but we hear the sounds of the sea. There is no end to the dream sequence. We just merge with the main feature, cutting to a child in a round (porthole?) window in Monsieur Oscar’s ocean-liner-shaped modernist mansion; these are not associative montages so much as insinuating edits. Images exhibit correspondences and likenesses (to one another, and to other movies) without always announcing what they are or what they mean. The image of the film’s director as a dreamer, looking out over a dulled and passive audience might picture him as the self-doubting instigator of the whole entertainment that is to come, or posit him as a disengaged bystander with little noticeable power over what follows. His position on the balcony is at once powerful and removed.
One of Monsieur Oscar’s assignments sends him into a gargantuan factory, where he finds himself in a motion-capture studio. He is dressed in a black, skintight lycra outfit and has reflective markers placed all over his face and body. After he has performed a series of combat moves (I think this is the only time in the film where Denis Lavant’s role is taken over by a stunt double), a statuesque, exceptionally lithe performer (she’s played by Russian contortionist, Zlata) enters the room. They engage in a snaky, writhing courting ritual that turns quickly into a sexual entanglement. If each of Monsieur Oscar’s assignments puts him into a different genre or mode of performance, then this one shows up the bare bones, the undercarriage of contemporary cinema: we are in cinema’s non-space, watching the scenes that are usually hidden beneath digital avatars dropped into CG backgrounds. While motion-capture is usually a means to an end, providing basic reference material for a spectacle that is elsewhere, here Carax gives it its own beauty, even its own erotic charge. The dancers markers merge into an undulating constellation, a bodily blend of smooth motion. Carax has talked contemptuously of digital cinema, so this might be his moment of mockery of this most digital of techniques; if the rhetorical question the film repeatedly rephrases is “What is cinema?”, the answer in this segment is “Cinema is going down on a contortionist, for unknown artistic purposes, in a big dark room cut off from the outside world.” Or, it might be a callback to Marey’s chronophotographic motion studies, an attempt to unite cinema’s modern adjunct technologies to the medium’s prehistory.
(The illuminated dots of the motion-capture studio create a visual correlation with the red lights of the theatre aisle in the first image, and with the clusters of lights that appear at various points in the film [the candles in the church, the stars reflected on the limousine, street lamps, headlamps, camera bulbs etc.].)
“Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!…” repeats breathless photographer Harry T-Bone (Geoffrey Carey) as he takes shot after shot of supermodel Kay M (Eva Mendes) at a glamorous photoshoot at the Père Lachaise cemetery. But when M. Oscar appears in the guise of M. Merde, his attention is diverted, and he switches from a Canon digital camera to his medium-format Hasselblad. “He’s so weird…”, T-Bone gushes with delight. Is the switch between digital and analogue significant here? Is it a switch from the instantaneity of fashionable (and fashion-led) ideas of beauty to the imperfect, artistic heritage of the grotesque? In the face of the photoshoot’s mass of equipment, the paraphernalia arrayed to harness light, M. Merde’s chaos is a shocking interruption of unadorned id. But, although he’s a creature of appetites (he chews flowers, bites fingers, licks an armpit), his behaviour is erratic, without agenda or pattern. This may be part of the photographer’s fascination for Merde: while Kay M willingly holds her poses, statically embodying an ideal of inscrutable beauty, Merde is not so easily grasped or contained by representation. This is a classic monster shot. A group of people gaze in horrified fascination at a monster off-camera (let’s not forget that his arrival is accompanied by Akira Ifukube’s main theme for Godzilla), readying us for the reverse-shot back to the grizzly spectacle of M. Merde.
[Père Lachaise cemetery makes several appearances in Holy Motors. Carax may be using it as a metonym for the film’s theme of mourning for the death of cinema: it is literally a morbid place for a fashion shoot in this scene, and it is the site of M. Oscar’s dream that dissolves into a pixellated mess later on. Père Lachaise is well-known as the burial-place for a number of celebrities, artists, and historical figures (Oscar Wilde, Honoré de Balzac, Jean-François Lyotard, Max Ophüls, Édith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Molière, Georges Méliès, Stéphane Grappelli, Émile Cohl, Maria Callas, Sarah Bernhardt, Guillaume Apollinaire, to name but a few), but it is also the resting place of Carax’s partner, Yekaterina Golubeva, star of his previous film, Pola X, who died shortly after shooting on Holy Motors began, possibly by her own hand. The film is dedicated to her, and the prologue was inspired by a story she had given to Carax, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Don Juan, in which a man discovers a secret door in his hotel room leading to a theatre. The concept of death is thus an abstract, metaphorical concept that lingers over the film in its air of melancholy and its concern with endings, dwindling cycles of repetition, and death. But it is also very personal, invested with a vein of painful truth that moves it beyond a distantly intellectual engagement with “the great theme”. This adds extra poignancy to the next scene, in which Carax and Golubeva’s daughter Nastya plays a lead role…]
Is this Monsieur Oscar momentarily out of character? In this scene where he collects his daughter from a party and drives her home, is he taking a break from his assignments to perform a family task? He does tell her that he’s been working on assignments all day, and this is the only time we see him driving a car instead of being driven, but on the other hand, he’s wearing a wig, so this is probably just another performance, albeit one that is a little more down-to-earth than some of his others. His daughter initially claims that she enjoyed the party, danced with some boys, drank and smoked. Her father forces the confession that in reality, she hid in the bathroom while her friend had all the fun. His vicious and withering punishment is to tell her that “she will have to live with herself”. It’s a bitter twist on the rebellious teenager trope, with a father disgusted at his child’s failure to misbehave. The focus is on faces, and the darkness around them helps to keep the compositions uncluttered, uncomfortably close and intimate. Other segments show full bodies and some grotesque or dramatic transformations. This domestic drama plays out with both conversants facing forwards, and we can pick out their inner thoughts from their nuanced expressions: he lets rip with his disdain, she stoically bears the burden of his disappointment. It’s a heartbreaking moment that could have been sliced out of an entirely separate film. It’s also about performance at some level – the daughter tries and fails to put an act for her dad. He sees right through it and mocks its inadequacy. Meanwhile, we have to presume that this is M. Oscar in character again, but more than ever, we wonder for what audience this might be. Is anyone watching this intimate scene play out in close-up? M. Oscar says he wants the truth, but his daughter is wiser and more cynical: she agrees that she would lie to him again if she knew he wouldn’t find out: “We’d both be happier.” What started as a stock scene between father and daughter has ended as a lesson in deception. Next time, she will improve her performance, and maybe succeed in fooling her father.
A musical interlude. M. Oscar is about to lead a rousing number from an expanding army of accordionists and other assorted musicians. After the intensity of the previous scene, it is an energising relief to listen to and to watch this group joyously marching around the interior of Saint-Merri Church in Paris. The accordion is an unusually physical instrument to play. It combines the delicacy of notes and chords played on dozens of buttons, with the bicep-straining action that drives the bellows. M. Oscar’s body is strapped into the instrument, as if it’s a massive prosthetic appendage out of which he can wrestle a tune. If M. Oscar is playing out a series of ways to entertain us, then music must be on that playbill. It doesn’t fit into any narrative schema, so Carax gives us, instead of a story, a sequence of pure rhythm and sound, captured in long tracking shots around the church. This is performance as ‘happening’, a site-specific musical moment that exploits the acoustics of the building even as it repurposes a locus of reverence for revelry. This time, we join a deathbed scene. M. Oscar has entered a plush hotel to take up the role of an old man. He spritzes his face to simulate a bit of a sweat, then slips beneath the sheets and pretends to die while his niece (Elise Lhomeau) waits by his bedside. He talks movingly about dying, his regrets and hopes for her. It’s a scene we feel like we’ve seen many times before. The dog asleep on the bed recalls the enormous canine we see in the dream-cinema in the prologue. The golden decor speaks of wealth, privilege, and interior comforts not seen in the other assignments; M. Oscar finally gets to stay still: most of his assignments require forward motion or vigorous activity. I believe this is the only assignment where we see the person for whom he is performing (“his” niece), and notice that she is performing, too. Moments after this shot, M. Oscar slips out of the bed and tells her he has another appointment. She has another appointment, too. This heartfelt scene of dying is another emotional exchange with no originating events – they are both collaboratively acting a clichéd scene of grief without anybody having to die or be traumatised. Is it a trial run for, or avoidance of, the inevitable real thing that is coming to us all in the end?
[In his mercurial switches of character, and his embodiment of an array of “types” that together make up an agglomerated depiction of “acting”, “performance”, or even embody “the cinema” and all of its attendant illusions, M. Oscar recalls Simon Cinema, the title character of Agnes Varda‘s The One Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinema (1995), as played by Michel Piccoli (who also makes an appearance in Holy Motors); I was also put in mind of the utterly magnificent performance by Alex Norton in Bill Douglas’s Comrades (1986); Norton plays more than a dozen parts, each embodying a different aspect of pre-cinematic visual culture: his presence mediates a series of different ways of seeing, of representing the world.]
Until the randomiser selected these images for me, I hadn’t noticed that the film was particularly dark, perhaps because I was most struck by its jolts of colour (M. Merde’s green suit, Zlata’s pink motion-capture suit, the pink curtains of the final house, Edith Scob’s white suit-and-limo combo). Nor had I thought that there were a lot of shots of characters’ backs. But that could be the impression given by this random selection. Here we are following M. Oscar and Jean (Kylie Minogue), another performer with whom he shares some romantic past. She is dressed and coiffed like Jean Seberg, that expat icon of the Nouvelle Vague via her star turn in Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960). Although it’s not clear from this shot (but note again the use of multiple small lights inside the scene instead of bright key lighting from off-camera), they are walking through the shell of the Samaritaine department store. Samaritaine has been closed, deemed unsafe, since 2005, and Carax needed special permission to shoot inside this monumental consumerist dead zone. Mannequins litter the floor like the DIY symbolic props they are. The store is also situated at one end of the Pont Neuf, which has some resonance with Carax’s own filmography. The setting of this scene inside the carcass of a place once so bustling with life and commerce is one of the film’s most forceful markers of its concern with death, with the passing of an age.
It is getting late, and M. Oscar must get ready for his final appointment. He and his driver Celine first enjoy some jokes (“We have to laugh before midnight. Who knows if we’ll laugh in the next life”, says M. Oscar wearily, tellingly…) and conversation. For most of the journey, Oscar sees Celine only on a screen that relays her image to him from a camera in the front of the limo (yet another layer of technologised mediation between people), but when he learns that she used to be a dancer, and thus a performer like him, he moves up front to speak with her directly. An illuminated halo separates their two spaces. M. Oscar is in his bathrobe, his head bald without the wigs that define most of the characters he plays, leaning in to look at his driver, who we can also see reflected in the rearview mirror: the car is a little prism of looks between them, the road ahead marking out the voyage towards a vanishing point. It is another moment where we suspect we may be seeing M. Oscar off-guard, off-duty, and denuded of the prosthetics of character and concealment. But Celine seems nervous as she drives him to his final destination (of the evening)…..
M. Oscar is back home. Except this is not home in any simple sense. It is his “final appointment”, and it is not the home we saw him leaving at the start of the film. Could it be that his life is an endless cycle of performances, even when he beds down at night with a different family, or have we finally arrived at the real M. Oscar? Is it even possible to distinguish, or is every person a performer, slipping between roles, poses, attitudes and demeanours according to the context in which they find themselves. Carax implies this through another vanishing-point composition, the identical, modern houses speaking of conformity, rigidity, and repetition. Only the pink lighting of one room stands out. It is in this room that we will see M. Oscar for the last time as he plays loving husband and father to a family of bonobo chimpanzees. It’s a desperately affecting image; his final performance is for a species who, though undoubtedly close to human, surely do not understand the concept of acting for entertainment. They are social, even moral creatures, an analogue for us all, a living museum of our ancestry, and beings onto whom, through a process of differentiation, we project our ideas of what it means to be human. But it is nevertheless a shock to find them hanging out and playing house in suburbia, and to leave M. Oscar, kaleidoscopic figure of chaos and change, settling into a quiet life at home. We’ve also come full circle. The Key used by Oscar to get into this house is the same one used by Carax to open the door in the wall that leads to the cinema in the prologue. And just as the ranks of limos are parked in rows back at the Holy Motors depot, we leave M. Oscar, parked at the head of a family, presumably just one in a row of other performers in other families.