Holy Motors: Violence, alienation and experience

It’s been a while since I saw a film as affecting as Holy Motors. There’s a reason for that, one that is worth exploring and indeed experiencing yourself. For those who don’t know, Holy Motors is the 2012 film directed by Leos Carax starring Denis Lavant and Édith Scob. It might be more familiar if I add it features cameos from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue.

Before I go any further, I am going to try and avoid giving away too much of the detail here, because I think to do so would diminish the impact for anyone who does want to see it. With no expectation comes sincere reaction. So if that’s you and you want to have no preconceptions then stop reading……… here.

That said, the film largely follows the exploits of Lavant as Mr Oscar who is driven through Paris in a white limousine by his assistant Céline (Édith Scob). Oscar is withdrawn, depressed and exhausted and also happens to have the utterly bizarre job of dressing up like a range of people and then acting out a series of really rather odd scenes. Of course, this smacks realism in the chops for two hours, but that’s fine because in the opening scene you see Le Dormeur (played by the director, Carax) wake up in a sealed room, unlock a door with his key-finger and walk through to a cinema within the cinema. Those detecting a Lynch vibe you are correct, there are elements of it; but it’s also a much more cogent and focused film than, say, Inland Empire or the interminable Eraserhead.

The film plays out as a series of individual scenes linked together by Mr Oscar and Célines’ journeys between appointments. This means that as an audience you are presented with only two people to really identify with and come to know as characters and that all of the performances you see, however sincere and familiar they are, are just performances. This dichotomy is one of the central pillars of the film for me – in a world awash with realist cinema this film wears all the trappings of realism but refuses to behave properly. We have to believe in Mr Oscar and his work, except we don’t know who he is, why he does it, whether or not he’s divinely instructed even. In fact, we’re not even sure Mr Oscar knows the answer to any of those questions.

Carax makes an incredibly complex set of concepts at once easy to feel but impossible to codify. It is no accident that of the various scenes the most disturbing are those which start Mr Oscar’s day. To try and rationalise the experience is to miss it. Instead you should witness the tragedy, brutality, eroticism, violence, submission and everything first hand, just as Mr Oscar does. There’s a fascinating revulsion to these performances, at one point objectified by a entirely vulgar photographer, so that you can’t look away no matter how corrupted the Beauty and the Beast parable becomes. You can’t help but get more and more uncomfortable at the representation of sex (itself then reduced to a representation of itself). When Mr Oscar gets back in the car, chain smoking his way through another costume change (the costume changes provide a fascinating glimpse beneath the hem of cinema make-up by the way), you can’t help but understand his exhaustion and sense of being lost, without purpose. Is it really his life to live the worst of other people’s lives?

Of course, if that were it then you would have an abstract film which uses an excellent device to subvert it’s medium. However, Carax is clearly a shinier button than that because it’s just the start. These difficult scenes serve to alienate you from everything that makes you comfortable and has you looking in and out, both at narrative and medium, and that’s when you are given things you can more directly relate to. Hell, there’s even a song or two thrown in there. But it’s only once you have been taken outside of the film, shown how arbitrary it is, had the scaffolding pointed out to you, that you’re allowed back in to get your catharsis. And as for Mr Oscar? I’ll just say that the most significant moment for him as a character, the moment that helps you understand his great sadness, is one of the songs. He has to perform it, experience it through a lens, instead of living it directly. No wonder he’s depressed.

This is a good time to make mention of the chameleonic Lavant (channelling a similar dark source that he offered in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely where he plays a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who dominates his wife, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator – another odd film) because he is integral to the film’s success. He flits between each role with a terrifying ease yet in the relative shelter of his limousine provides a nuanced and palpable face of a man who has had too much. Scob is a superb foil as well, concerned for her charge but also not letting him slip from the task at hand.

It’s made all the more unsettling by moments of anarchy. Whoever and whatever Mr Oscar is, and whoever he works for, you know there is at least a structure and purpose driving things, however obscure. Watching Mr Oscar change who he’s playing halfway through a scene undermines that. And when he suddenly sees something on his way to an appointment and barrrels out of the limo, a free agent acting alone? Well, it’s not entirely comforting is it. What’s to stop him doing it again? Why didn’t Céline, or his employer, stop him? Why didn’t I stop it?

The difficult thing to do here is to try and tie all of these thoughts together into some kind of conclusion, so here goes: Holy Motors exists on the line between reality and the abstract, performance and experience and a great number more such balances. It’s about what you expect as an audience, and what the performers and film crew expect. It’s a mix of the most fundamentally familiar experiences of life told in the strangest of ways. It’s about Mr Oscar and Céline and it’s about the people they bring us, why they do it and why we need it. It is a forceful and powerful piece of cinema which will continue to percolate through your layers of understanding long after you watch it; but like all the best puzzles, the answer is both glaringly obvious and so intricately woven you could be counting threads until life forgets you and calls Mr Oscar to stand in.

Finally, one last thing: Spare a thought for the motors.

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