Directed by Leos Carax, Holy Motors tells the story of a mysterious man Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he spends his day travelling around Paris in a stretched limo. The limo and its driver Celine (Edith Scob) take Oscar to designated locations within the city. Each location beholds a unique situation that Oscar must act out on arrival. On the way Oscar must disguise himself for those situations using a small dressing room mirror in the back of the limo. This is somewhat reminiscent of the memorable images of Limelight in which Charlie Chaplin transforms himself into a clown in much the same way. Oscar must prepare for his performances. Only these performances take place in the real world, with no audience and with no cameras.
The first performance Oscar must act out is a homeless beggar woman on a bridge. The bridge looks remarkably like the one used in Carax’s 1991 film “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” a film that also deals with street people and stars Denis Lavant in its main role.
One of the most striking of these performances in the film is when Oscar must perform in a motion capture suit. This scene is extraordinary and shows how film acting has progressed with modern technologies. It shows that with films like “Avatar” acting is changing. No longer are the physical actors needed just their motions and movements. After falling off a treadmill, tiring himself and becoming victim to a machine much like Chaplin in Modern Times, Oscar then proceeds to act out the motions of sex with a fellow female motion artist that has entered the room. The motions are then transformed into the imagery of two mythical creatures. This is a fascinating insight and statement from the filmmaker on how powerful cinema has become with the imagery it can create.
The film is deeply filled with cinematic references. From the short hair of Kylie Minogue’s character Jean/Eva Grace reminding me of Jean Seberg’s character in Godard’s Breathless. To the mask worn by Edith Scob’s character towards the end of the film, resembling exactly the masked she wore in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face.
The film possesses an interesting narrative structure in the way it moves in its spiritual space. The film spans logically from the beginning to the end of a day. However on the way, it seems to mix up and change structurally. Some sequences seem to linger all day, and others seem to want to readily reach the end of the day, by means of quickly happening from nowhere to move large spaces of time forward. This is largely down to the mindset of Oscar and one might say he does not know whether he is “coming or going” in the sense he has no idea where his day will lead next, the day itself seems to not know where to move to next. This is strongly reflected in the films narrative structure.
Since in a way this is a film about films, it is hard to pinpoint a genre in its layers, largely due to the fact that with every difficult layer we find a totally new genre of film. An example of this is in the films performances. We witness a long sequence in which Oscar plays a dying man. Another actress from this world is playing his daughter as she sits mournfully at his bedside. Jump forward 20 minutes and Oscar is performing a musical choreography with Kylie Minogue. Jump back 20 minutes and Oscar is chasing and murdering a gangster that looks completely identical to him, this portrays a crime or psychological thriller genre. As with everything else in the film, the genres around it are constantly changing and moulding into each other.
The film is purposely challenging and thought provoking to its audience. It is not a film everyone will relate to. In fact very few people could relate to Holy Motors 100%, it is not that type of product. It feels closer to art. The film needs to be felt instead of enjoyed and audiences should let the film take them wherever it feels necessary. The only way to truly feel this is to accept that everyone will naturally have different responses to the film, and they may be positive or negative. The way the film has been made requires a high level of understanding and commitment towards it. It is a rare film and art product, were by making its audience think is prioritised rather than its need to entertain, and this approach would ultimately turn away some groups in its audience.
The film for me is a complete deconstruction of the history of film acting. It depicts the life of a man for whom acting is all he has. His life is based around his performance and his personal persona is only visible within the confined spaces of the white stretched limo. This is his only real home and driver Celine is his only real family. This may also be a reflection of us, the audience in our everyday lives. Keeping our real personas for those who know us best and creating a performance persona for the rest of the world and strangers around us. Oscar in a way can symbolise everyone. The film portrays his and our endless search to discover who they really are. But in he end, there are no real answers.
Darrell Ron Tuffs