By Fernando Ganzo
After relishing with Holy Motors twice, I haven´t stop thinking where is the pleasure coming from. I reject the idea that it is a nostalgic thing, that it is because it´s “an homage to film”, as everyone is saying here in Cannes (“cinema at its purest” and all those expression that, I suppose, are handed out with the credentials of the Festival). We know that we are the bastard children of cinema. If we think of the real cinephiles, we can´t consider ourselves their brothers, for we were born too late and in a world that it was not ours and that couldn´t be understood in the same way. So, in a way, we all enjoy seeing the inside of daddy´s underwear lying on the floor and to imagine that he´s been raped in his most luxurious room. The pleasure comes from the destructive charge dormant in each one the stages that the character goes through in the film; in its heretical force. But it would not have been the same had those images not preserved the essence of being purely film images (Carax always was in the “beautiful image” side, the Murnau camp, if you will); and that´s a border that Tsai Ming-liang crossed with Visage, for instance, having to pay a hefty toll for it.
In a way, Holy Motors is only Carax´s own rendition of Bonello´s De la guerre. In it we have a character that bears the filmmaker´s name (Mr. Oscar, and we know that Léos Carax = Alex Oscar) and that has to go through several stages—as if they were screens in a videogame. If both films lay down such a pronounced discourse about their author, is because the main character struggles to overcome those stages in order to achieve happiness in our time (in Bonello´s film), or to make a film (in Carax´s). Mr. Oscar exhausts himself playing different roles for which he rehearses inside a limo that Edith Scob drives around Paris, and he does so in a similar way that films wear their gestation out in their quest to obtain financial aid from the CNC [world cinema support scheme]. It is impossible to deny financial aid to Holy Motors in France nowadays. Why? Because it includes all the elements that they are looking for in an auteur film; and Carax delivers it with a irreverence that almost perverts the constant ambiguity of those performances (beauty/parody).
Namely: a social film (Mr. Oscar as a foreign beggar in Paris), a Hollywood action film (Mr. Oscar as an assassin that comes from the cold), an auteur self-fiction (Mr. Oscar as a Carax lookalike fussing with his daughter as she drives him back home), an odd digital animation (Mr. Oscar in a capture motion session), an ambiguously incestuous naturalistic story (Mr. Oscar as a dying elderly man being looked after by his young and lame niece); even a musical interlude, as it is customary in all prefab French films “for vitality purposes.” The appearance by Mr. Merde [Shit] (from Tokyo) adds to the mixer another type of film; the one made out of short films directed by different filmmakers; the one that nobody knows why it is being done, but for which there always seems to be money, as Mr. Carax himself knows very well.
The “trick” of the film is that the boundary that closes the different representations becomes gradually dim. In the first ones, a somewhat comic ellipsis takes us back to the limo. But as the film progresses, we dive increasingly further in the content of those ellipsis and we don´t quite know whether Mr. Oscar is acting or if it´s all happening “for real.” And when it does happen “for real”, we have the feeling that Carax himself is talking through Mr. Oscar in the first person singular.
His boss, or the producer (in any account, the mysterious person responsible for him being in the limo) pops up unexpectedly in the seat opposite. It´s Michel Piccoli. In the course of the dialogue that follows, Mr. Oscar says:
-In the beginning, cameras used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now we don´t even see them at all.
-Thugs in the suburbs don´t see the surveillance cameras either, but that doesn´t mean they are not aware of them. (…) I´m becoming paranoid too. For instance, I tend to think that I´m going to die one day. (…) Have you ever thought about quitting? Why are you still in this?
-For the same reason that I got in in the first place: the beauty of the gesture.
-But they say that beauty is actually in the eye that looks.
-If nobody looks anymore then?
Narrative tragic: Mr. Oscar been filmed constantly; his life as an endless performance in which he´s trapped like the Chaplin character was in the factory. Film tragedy: if nobody looks anymore but, at the same time, images are pervasive, Carax, formerly a privileged kid, agrees to be a good boy and go through all the tests, but assumes that tragedy with a revitalizing “Fuck the universe.” Or maybe we interpret it that way due to the current financial scenario. In one scene in particular, Mr. Oscar, disguised as an assassin, rides his limo through the Champs-Élysées. Suddenly, he fiercely ask the driver to stop the car and steps down from it armed, his face hidden under a mask covered with barbed wire. He walks towards Fouquet´s (the restaurant where Nicolas Sarkozy officially celebrated his triumph in the polls five years ago). At that point in the film, I was sure he was going to kill Sarkozy, but instead he enters the restaurant and kills the rich banker he himself played earlier in the film (another mise- en-abyss). The joy of watching Holy Motors is that, unconsciously, we celebrate the death of a “Sarkozy cinema”; one that it´s in its death throes, but that still surrounds Carax´s film here in Cannes.
Actually, the difficult balance of Holy Motors lies in being irreverent and respectful at the same time, both funny and terribly self-centered. For instance, in one of the “breaks”, Mr. Oscar runs into another performance (Kylie Minogue) in a limo very much like his own; they almost crash and Mr. Scob insults the other chauffeur («hectoplasme à roulettes !»). Then Scob and the Minogue character walk alongside as they recall their love from twenty years ago. She sings. They are in the Samaritaine building, one that overlooks the Pont Neuf in which a Carax character committed suicide… well, twenty years ago. Scob gets his girl back (Minogue) and evokes other pretty girls that he was able to win over with his films, talks about how much he wanted to film a good many others, about the girls that he was able to get into his parties, the new girls (a doll Eva Mendes, a Grémillonesque Elise L´hommeau)... But the evocation of his yearnings in a musical fashion it´s also a parody of the false dreamers that followed him (“Honorés” of this world). It is both funny and touching.
The powerful (and Godardian) title credits of the film show images by Marey and Muybridge. Then the Carax character wakes up or starts to dream. He enters a theatre were the audience, like ghosts, seem to be either dead or asleep, and we hear the ocean. Film as a ship. Fellini´s E la nave va. Maybe we were wrong all along. Perhaps cinema was not showing us a theatre of shadows, but we were the shadows ourselves. Perhaps we should have stick to Marey and Muybridge. Perhaps we should have accepted that film was an invention with no future right from the start, and modulated that as a celebration. No future. Truffaut once said that film-buffs knew the cinema of the movie theatre, and that it was like attending a mass service. Along came video, which was like the book of praying. Being in a film festival it´s like going to watch the Pope riding his Popemobile: a ghost of the ancient belief. Maybe that´s why we are so desperate for heretics; because, as Michel Delhaye´s voice says at the end of Holy Motors: nobody wants motors anymore. («Moteur ! Ça tourne ! Action !»). Nobody wants action anymore.
Translated from Spanish by Hugo Obregón
FRANCE, 2012, 115’
Director: Leos Carax.
Script: Leos Carax.
Cinematography: Yves Cape, Caroline Champetier.
Editing: Nelly Quetier.
Sound: Emmanuel Croset, Erwan Kerzanet.
Casting: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob,
Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue,
Michel Piccoli, Jean-François Balmer,
François Rimbau, Big John, Karl Hoffmeister.