THE OBVIOUS REFFERENCING
A man (Leos Carax) wakes up in a hotel room; enchanted forest wallpaper is seen on the walls; he finds a keyhole and opens a door on the wall (Alice in Wonderland); he goes through; the man is in the cinema; he looks down on the motionless film audience (mirroring us, the film audience); a girl walks down the cinema aisle.
Oscar (Denis Levant), a banker, says goodbye to his family in front of his 1930s functionalist house. His daughter shouts: Work hard! (a subtle reference to Beau Travail (1999) by Claire Denis). A man waves to her and enters a white stretch limo (Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is another white stretch limo film of 2012), which will become his prop changing room for the entire duration of the film. His driver, an older lady named Celin (Edith Scob) hands him a dossier of day’s tasks:
01. The beggar. (Brings The Unholy Three (1925) to mind or Woody Allen’s Zelig a man the chameleon);
02. An acrobatic actor in motion-capture session. (White dots on a black costume – is he making a porn video game, an SF feature, something Matrix (1999) or Avatar (2010) like perhaps?)
03. Merde. (Only this time the character of Merde strikes in Paris, instead of Tokyo (2008). He abducts the silent model (Eva Mendes) in Pere Lachaise fashion shoot (Cocteau’s Beauty and the beast) shifting the focus on what art is or could be completely. He takes her underground where surreal events take place, which of course evokes the whole Surrealist movement and in Paris, the city epitome of Surrealism (Jean Benoit for example used to eat roses and cigars). He then dresses her up in burka taking away her accessorize, covering her completely. In turn he gets bare naked and lies into her lap. A shift from the towering beauty figure that is Kay M, the model, to a living form of Michelangelo’s Pieta is a clear provocation. Provocation that questions the very essence of beauty, the human body, sexuality and desire).
04. A father of a teenage girl. (Resnais come to mind).
05. Musical Intermezzo. For a brief moment of time Oscar assumes the role of accordionist, leading his band down the streets of Paris. Is this the real Oscar?
06. The killer and the killed. He is both and the third, the Oscar, the one who gets away. Shift in the genre (noir/comedy/fantasy).
07. The banker attack. Mister Oscar’s mistake in role-playing. But the banker is him, again. Double identity? Cloning? Or a filmic superimposing?
08. The final moments of others. I personally immediately think of Alps (2011).
09. The quasi-musical finale at Samaritaine building (possibly staged by two limos that crashed into one another). Kyle Minogue, also a performer like Mister Oscar, is without a doubt Jean Seberg (Breathless 1960), whose tragic song refers to “the dream” something that literally brings the beginning of the film (and Carax himself) back to mind.
10. The family of chimps. (Oscar’s final avatar for the day. Set in the suburban Paris, Oscar goes home to his family of monkeys. Is it a mockery? A comic relief? All in day’s work?)
Whatever the case might be, the film ends, not with Oscar but with his driver, Edit Scob, parking her limo in a garage of the company they are working for. She puts on her mask from Les yeaux sans visage (1960 Franju) and walks away (to her real life) leaving the cars behind.
The spectator is left with the final scene of Holy Motors – the talking white limos discussing their day in the overnight garage – a clear, hilarious and almost genius reference to Pixar’s Cars (2006).
I’ve tried to do the Holy Motors summary whilst pointing out the obvious references Carax used in his astonishing new feature film. But if you haven’t seen the film it might be hard to follow. However, the truth is that I purposely decided to write in such a way assuming that you already know what I am talking about. If not, I suggest you watch the film instead and then come back.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
Carax has often been termed a Mannerist filmmaker, namely for taking cinema history rather than life as his (main source of) reference. And partly this is true. Holy Motors continues to explore this aesthetic. In one of the very few interviews Carax has given us in the passing year, he pointed out how Holy Motors is the film that uses the film language to tell a story, but the story itself is not about film. This marks the biggest question hovering above and all around this film – what is it about (then)? Is it about the profession (of an actor)? Is it about a man who is searching for his long lost identity? Is it about the contemporary society and its folly? Is it the film at all? Or is it some kind of Surrealist parlour game? An overlapping chain letter written across our planet for and with us? A poem? A piece of the most wonderful music written in the moving image code? And what is it trying to tell us – that cinema is dying and is in need of a rescue; that the simplicity of the expression is stifled in the ever-expanding form; or that identity is an elaborate construct after all.
After I’ve gave it some though I’ve come to realize that Holy Motors is first and foremost about the movement. How commonplace of me. How commonplace indeed. But when I say it is about the movement I am thinking of life in the broadest sense of this cliché. It is about everything and nothing. It is a film that just is. It is a film about the stillness – the stillness of life, the image, the audience. It is a film about the movement – the movement of life, the body, the passing time, the passion of the trace. It is referencing all of the above but likewise not just merely referencing, it is reworking and restaging the images preset by Godard, Franjo, Welles, Lang, Demy and so forth. In fact, the more I think about it the more I come to the conclusion that Holly Motors is in fact a not-so-literal cinematic translation of the chronophotographic experiments conducted by Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge at the end of 19th century, we can see throughout the film.
So, in order to understand the not-so-obvious connection in Oscar’s embodiment of pre-scripted roles one has to reject or at least forget about the narrative sense, and go way back to the very beginning of cinema and just let go, embracing the unreason and bare movement, in all its beauty, as his/her main point of reference. This was the time when cameras were bigger than the people standing in front of them. And now, we can’t even see them. Carax misses his cameras. He misses his film rolls. That much is obvious and the apparent nostalgia for the things that are gone, felt in every facet of this flawless film, is becoming almost sentimental. Therefore, despite his claim, it is a film about the film itself after all.
THE OPENING SEQUENCE
The strongest and the most important part of Holy Motors is its opening sequence that works as a very vivid manual for watching and likewise understanding it but it also works as Carax’s unique expressive statement that proclaims a certain fear he holds – that no one will see or love his new film – and simultaneously a hope – that at least one person eventually will.
The movie theater is packed but the audience is asleep. We hear the sound of the street noises, an opening door, a brief silence, and then the terrified voice of a man who shouts three times: ‘No!’ Then, the noise of a gunshot, the flash, which momentarily illuminates the spectators’ faces who do not seem to feel anything at all: they remain in a horrifying state of immobility, as if they are statues or worse, indifferent. A child and a dog slowly moving down the aisle, towards the end of this sequence, seem to be the only visible signs of life. Up, somewhere above we see a man (Carax himself) waking up in a hotel room. His dog is lying beside him. It is the middle of the night. He lights up the cigarette and gets up. He hears the sound coming from a wall. He comes closer, curious as to what is happening on the other side. He finds a door in a forest and discovers the lock. His ring finger is attached, as prosthesis, to a key that unlocks this door. He makes an entry or exit, depending on your point of view and passes through a corridor lined with red walls. An emergency exit light flashes in front of him. He opens a second door, climbs a set of stairs, and emerges in the empty amphitheater section of a cinema. From there, he looks at the spectators in the audience.
The hotel room is the cinema theater. The man who discovers the hidden amphitheater of immobile observers is the director, Carax himself, and although we were never shown the images on the screen and although some claim it’s King Vidor’s The Crowd (1925) I felt like it is Carax’s own film because the sounds we hear are stretched over the beginning of the next scene – the first scene in which Lavant appears as a businessman saying goodbye to his “family”. Whichever it is – Carax or Vidor – it doesn’t really matter.
By comparison, the emphasis on the opening sequence is not, like in the rest of the film, on representation, but rather on the audience and the omnipresent question of immobile, passive film spectator. This of course has a twofold meaning. First, it can be read as a clear reference to the ongoing academic theater and film discourse on spectator and existing differences set between these two, whereas the theater spectator is understood as the active spectator, a participant of the performance regardless a degree of the involvement whilst the film spectator is generally understood as a passive spectator simply because the images he observes on screen are dead, i.e., they are pre-recorded and therefor they do not require any degree of involvement. In other words, in former an exchange is a possibility considering the one who is looking and the one who is looked at are both live, active bodies who can interrupt each other, take from one another in any given moment etc. while the latter only partly consists of living, active body, that of the spectator who in the process becomes the passive body, immersed in his seat, observing a dream like images unfolding before his eyes in a dream like state. However, I firmly disagree, especially because I did an extensive research on this particular topic in my thesis, but considering my focus lies elsewhere I will just suggest you read some Barthes, Burgin, Bordwell, Metz and Rancier and decide for yourself, that is, if you are interested in further exploring this topic. The second is the one I already talked about – the indifferent audience is without a doubt every director’s worst nightmare and for a good reason. However, Leos Carax has nothing to fear. Holy Motors is truly a masterpiece.
THE BEAUTY OF THE GESTURE
Each act – each part in the series of Oscar’s bizarre ventures across Paris – in between the opening and closing scene, is a beautiful, well contained piece of film making, in its own right that, truth be told, works best when slotted into one place. It is a repetition of representation, living by reliving, whose performer is always performing.
The film opens with an ordinary scene: Mister Oscar saying goodbye to his ordinary family. Ordinary scene. Ordinary family. The film ends with with Mister Oscar going back home to, as it appears, his brand new family. And this time around not so ordinary either. This is the anamorphic aspect of the film, or better yet, the Groundhog aspect of it. He leaves one family only to come back to another. It goes on and on because to live is to relive. Following this logic, if Holy Motors was to go on and we are to see what happens next my guess is the repetition of yet another iteration: Celine is there ready and waiting in her white limo, in front of the very same house we left Mister Oscar of; Mister Oscar leaving for work yet again, waving his not so ordinary family goodbye. Well, we know this is not what happened for Oscar’s odyssey ended right there and then, with his blissful unity of monkeys. Simultaneously, this pinpoints the exact moment in which everything falls into place leaving the audience to come to realization that none of the families Oscar had throughout the film were in fact his real families. Each family was just yet another performance – each night he beds another woman, human or non human, and likewise, each morning he says goodbye to another set of kids, human or non-human. Therefor, the initial scene of commonplace of social intercourse juxtaposed with the final scene of horror unfolded the terrible truth, the bare truth: every single family is a simulation of pretending, a fake, and a construct.
But then again, if we are to follow the logic the film has provided us with, one of these families must be real. It must. But which one is it? And moreover, if we start questioning his fake families we then must begin to question the status of every single character that made appearance in this film. This makes me wonder, is Holy Motors a part of some elaborate game Carax is playing or some kind of an experiment that will successfully trigger and activate the oh-so-boring and overly passive body of film spectator? How good is he at guessing and reading the clues?
Instead of further exploring this topic I opt for asking the following question – who is the audience he is performing for? The spectators of Holy Motors i.e. us, certainly; the immobile spectators who double us in the theatre Carax slips into at the very beginning of the film, probably; the filmmaker who imagined and directed them, naturally. But who is the audience he is performing for within the space of the film itself? He is a banker, a beggar, animalistic creature arisen from the sewer, a widowed father of a young girl, an accordionist, a murderer and its victim, a lover, a dying old man, a family man, a slave of the spectacle, in the society of the spectacle. And although the spectacle, to which he is indivisible part of, uses the cinematic and theater gestures and genres – erotic fantasy, gangster film, Chekhovian drama, monster film, musical, documentary – it is above all the spectacle of our quotidian lives, the one we inherited, the one we reproduce on a daily basis, over and over again. Where are the cameras? Are they so small that they can be hidden anywhere and at any time? Do they exist at all? Is he a participant of the Truman Show (1998), Fincher’s Game (1997) or the Big Brother? Is he performing for the people on the Internet? Perhaps. Or for those who take part in his own performances? Most likely.
Mister Oscar fits in the lives of the people he is performing with like a missing piece within the context, perfectly and it seems that, without him, these people he meets on his pre-set journey would not reach their fulfillment or the very much-needed closure. This brings to mind the beautiful project “What if, if I take your place?” by the wonderful Dutch/Lebanese artist Lina Issa.
For a period of time, Lina has been placing an advertisement in different cities, online and in newspapers, asking people if she could take their place in one situation or another in their life. For an hour, a day, a week…. She would ask them the following questions: “Did you ever want to be in two places at the same time? Did you ever have a desire or need that someone else: (1) takes your place in a certain situation? (2) Does or says something that you never dared to say or do yourself? (3) Visits something from your past or future, bringing a memory or a message? (4) Goes in your place to work, or fulfills your daily rituals in your place?” By extension, Lina was a divorced woman, a best friend, a sister, a garbage man, a curator and a grieving daughter. Isn’t this just one of the many things Mister Oscar is doing?
“What makes you carry on Oscar?” Michel Piccoli (possibly his boss) asks at one point, to what Oscar responds: What made me start – The beauty of the act.
And what a beautiful act it was. A celebration of cinema, the manifesto, a realization that cinema is, for those of us who still care, yet another good or valid reason for living. We go on, despite the size of the cameras, the shift to digital, the loss of artistic aspect to it, the emerging formalism; we go on for the sake of ‘yesterday’s cinephilia today’; for the beauty of the act. “They say the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what when there is no more a beholder?” For films like Holy Motors, there always will be. At least one…one with his eyes open, wide awake..and for what is worth, it usually only takes one. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Text written by: Monika Ponjavic
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