Holy Motors

Holy Motors ★★★★★

Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax, a man known for his decades spanning minimal career, is the 2012 love letter to cinema and it’s reflectionist capabilities. A surrealistic journey in a day in the life of Mr. Oscar, an actor whose job is to capture the identities of various personalities and enact scenes for the client to watch through an unseen lens, is one of the most bizarre, unique and downright brilliant pictures I’ve ever seen. The film is bursting with questions and enigmas, the answers of which are left to us to interpret. What resonates with me while watching is it’s cinematic self-awareness that lies within the artificiality of the narrative. Additionally, the profound insight on the human experience, specifically relationships - the external connection and the internal affliction - is where the film finds it’s emotional core in a seemingly detached reality.

When discussing Holy Motors, it would be impossible to not include each scene within the dissection. Hidden pieces of information are scattered throughout that to miss one would be to leave a page unturned. In the beginning, the first images on screen are that of silent film snippets. Carax returns us to the genesis of the moving image before smash cutting to the present - in an almost Kubrickian homage - where an audience sits lifeless in a theatre as an oddly matched soundscape bursts off the speakers. This is us, for the man in the adjoining room, with the key as his finger, living in a room where the sounds of life outside his window match those of the theatre, is Leos Carax himself.

A quote of his from an Indiewire article: “Although I don't make films for anybody, I do make films, therefore I do make them for someone: I make them for the dead. But then I show them to living people that I start to think about while I'm editing -- who'll watch them?” Carax, a man whose mind is strictly accessible through a tool only he has access to, sees his audience lifeless because it’s not us he makes his movies for, but the people who were alive to see the films he gave us brief glimpses of before his movie even began, people who are now dead. This is the influence of a director: the ability they have to shape a motion picture with their biases and ideologies. Finally, with those sounds still blaring, we cut to the focus of the film as all that came before was merely an establishment of the mind behind the art.

Moving away from Carax’s balladry to cinema, we watch as the film begins capturing, pre-intermission, the voices of those who catch themselves in the midst of life. There is a banker, departing his family, on his way to work. An elderly beggar, her back crippled as she stares at the shoes of passersby, proclaiming her unwilling disassociation with the love of others. Then the motion captured man, executing the actions of what can be interpreted as movements in a video game, who is joined by a woman where the two then begin to have graphically inexplicit sex over their suits. We are then presented with the computer generated images of their actions. Following is the story of beauty and the beast, where mousier Merde (translated to Mr. Shit) removes Beauty off her pedestal and leads her to the sewers below. There he covers her beauty in cloth, exposes his full self and lies next to her, his head resting on her lap.

Finally, there is the story of a father and his daughter. The daughter’s lies anger her father and he cruelly sends her up to the apartment, without a sign of remorse in his eyes and nothing but sadness in hers. But, what do these all have to do with each other? The Banker’s story is one of separated connection. The Beggar’s is about the lack of connection. The motion capture about a false connection, the beauty and the beast about a pure and fundamentally raw connection and the father/daughter revolves around the momentary breaking of connection, where our own emotions get in the way of built-in feelings.

The day is only at its midpoint and life has been captured on a vast spectrum. While these stories have played out in sequential time, we come to recognize the artificiality of the separate tales. Just as in every narrative film we watch, there are actors playing roles and an audience watching them. Holy Motors does not satirize the faux representation that one can see film as being, but it celebrates the fact that the mind of an artist can conjure such magic that, to Carax, is not something we would understand, but, to us, is hopefully something we can learn from.

And then is the intermission. This harkens back to the epics of the 50s and 60s where we would break from our regularly scheduled programming and have a stretch or go relieve oneself. But more than that, the film uses music as transition to celebrate the life we had witnessed previously. One must note that after this intermission, the film begins to revolve itself around death (negating the final segment with Oscar). Upbeat and parading rhythm takes us from life to death in a single long take, only cut near the end to emphasis the silence before the final beat. They exit the church, a place of prayer for both the living and the dead, and we begin our descent into the convoluted madness that we will come to know as the film runs on.

To summarize the following events: The killer and the killed, whose identity to us becomes a mystery. The quiet and close encounter between an uncle and his niece as he lays on is deathbed. The murder of his former self, the banker, and then we go home, to his family of primates. With each segment, one can come to find where the moments of connection come into play. In the second half, however, some of these segments focus not on those in the scene, but on Oscar as a developing character. Where the integral aspect of the second half lies, however, is with his reunion of an old lover. The scene breaks into music as the question is asked, “Who were we when we where who we were?”

This notion brings their characters to light. People living in personas that in no way are reflections of them, yet have come to define them. This is most poignantly noticeable when they discuss their physical attributes as not being a part of their own identity. It all, oddly, provokes an almost introspective experience. The desire to see yourself and ensure that you don’t build a false personality atop a foundation, also influenced by outside thoughts. It’s what makes Holy Motors strangely human. It’s focus on death, too, brings the life, beforehand, into perspective.

It almost seems that this break down is a mess of ideas, honestly. But, I only expected that due to the fact Holy Motors shares that structure. There’s the part during a dream, travelling through a graveyard, where the image becomes distorted, almost as if we’re watching film, as it ages, kill itself. It mirrors modern age, where film is scarce and, especially during the time Holy Motors was released, film was mere inches away from extinction. But then there’s a scene such as Oscar’s family reunion in the end. Here it shows us past and present co-existing in harmony. Is it a counter-outlook to his dream? Is it simply another example of human relationships within the film? Frankly, I’m not quite sure.

Finally, the infamous car scene, where our title “Holy Motors” is given both context and a voice. Vehicles in a garage begin to speak of their death, calling out mankind on their insipid desire to replace the unbroken. It’s confusing but contextualized within a world without rules. The thematics are relevant and, just before the credits, they say a small prayer for their own lives, just as we do for ours, before going to sleep.

The constant clash of filmic style — surrealism, realism, expressionism, etc.. — is what gives Holy Motors a unique and dumbfounding voice. It most certainly could be the “weirdest" film you’ve ever seen, but it, undoubtably, has more to say than is even capable of grasping is less than three viewings. After four viewings, I still solemnly believe that I’ve much to learn. What I can tell you, however, is that it’s a love letter to cinema and a mediation on the human experience. The movie showcases this through love, loneliness and death, celebrating all three with profound sorrow and invigorating action. Though we’re constantly aware of the artificiality behind the narrative, Holy Motors still captures our attention and emotion, showing us the life that surrounds us through the eyes of a filmmaker who believes that the dead are the people who his films are for. Why? Well, if you asked me, I’d say it’s because they’ve experienced what we haven’t. They’ve died, and that’s something none of us can say we understand.

Chaim liked this review