Oscar (the chameleonic Denis Lavant) is the consummate thespian, inhabiting his roles so thoroughly that he seems to disappear entirely into them. It seems notable and perhaps problematic that a film like Holy Motors which is so defined by the search for identity, both with regard to the Actor as well as cinema as an art form, that it be so focused on a man and on what that man does, and that it be directed by a man. A larger issue within the film world in general is the lack of female representation behind the scenes, and such a problem would resonate with this film… unless one chooses to read the film as Edith Scob’s driver as the director. Leos Carax may have cleverly and subversively addressed a very serious issue within the film industry with the inclusion of a seemingly innocuous and unnoticeable character. The argument will be made that the entire film exists as a self-aware critique of those industry problems.
Upon its release in 2012, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors managed to be a fitting response to those tolling the bell for the death of cinema. For, its portrayal of everything about cinema existing as fluid, evolving, and changing seemed timely and still remains relevant. What seems regressive and problematic about the film, though, is that it continues to exist within a male dominated vacuum, where female characters are not terribly notable or important unless they are playing certain kinds of “types”. Unlike Lavant’s Oscar, who shape shifts and changes disguises with great aplomb, the female characters seem to be relegated to fairly minor parts, rarely affecting the story itself.
When these female character do make any kind of impact on the film, it is normally with regard to Oscar’s character. These female characters, from Eva Mendes’ doomed beauty (paired against Lavant’s beast) to the daughter (Jeanne Disson) and the driver (Scob), almost are rendered as devoid depth as the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This writing trope generally exists with American romantic films and romantic comedies and are defined by female character that exist solely to act as catalyst for the change in the (usually) male protagonist. However, there is a reason why “almost” is used, for, initially, these female characters have no motivations, which still remains true. But in these sketch-like episodes, neither does Oscar. Each scene is like one taken from a film sans context and dropped into the film to reveal its flaws and to lightly subvert them.
IN the doomed beauty sequence, Carax follows Monsieur Merde (who was originally created for the anthology film Tokyo!) as he kidnaps Kay, a slender, fragile, and pulchritudinous fashion model. The photographer’s assistant is sure to make an allusion to Diane Arbus as she tries to cajole him into being a subject for her boss. He brings her down to the sewers and, as opposed to exploiting her beauty, covers her up and strips down naked himself. The assistant notes that the photographer is American, and thus, Carax implies that he is satirizing American cinematic beauty standards. Initially, it seems that this surreal short exists as simply nonsensical, with Mendes there only for her looks. However, by juxtaposing the diametrically opposite bodies, but covering one up to be shielded, he acknowledges that male actors can grow older and less appealing, but female actresses, should they age at all, but be kept literally “under wraps”. This is sad, since Eva Mendes is primarily known as a sex symbol. That very title, however, is a double edged sword, as it seems to reduce her only to her aesthetic beauty. The sequence seems to ask silently, when that’s gone, what is left? If an actress is defined inly by their sexual appeal, very little is left when that appeal has corroded.
When Oscar plays the father of a young girl, Angele, ostensibly with some social anxiety, the pep talk he gives her is prototypical. Dance with your friends, be social. However, this pressure for beauty, as was commented on prior with the sequence with M. Merde, carries through with regard to the messages American cinema often sends to young women. “Your punishment,” the father tells his daughter solemnly, “my poor Angele, is to be you. To have to live with yourself.” Angele very obviously translates as “angel”, but is important to consider the fact that Carax knowingly has a man, her father no less, tell his daughter essentially that if she does not meet society’s expectations for her, she will have to live as herself, nearly as The Other.
Also interestingly, the film sets these two sequences back to back, taking into consideration the ages of the actresses. Eva Mendes (who is also American) was 38 when the film was released and Jeanne Disson was 12. Though Mendes seems young, she is, in Hollywood terms, nearing the end of her rope in her ability to get “juicy” roles. Disson, on the other hand, represents the opposite side of the spectrum, aging every more quickly to a part of her life where good film roles will be hers for the picking. But this is, admittedly, premature, and that is exactly the point. If one imagines the father as a producer or casting director, his warning is for her life as an actress, a life on the verge of being marred if she does not follow the conventions of an ingénue.
For Oscar, his issues and upcoming problems as a continuing actor with the ever curious “appointments” are not based on beauty but based on audience. Part of Holy Motors success is its ability to act as a meta-reflexive examination of the world. What the Man with the Birthmark’s (Michel Piccoli) concern is audience. Much more literally than Oscar’s Father, Piccoli is written very much like an actor turned executive, a studio suit that presumptively thinks they know what the audience wants and subsequently both satiates their desire yet denies their curiosity for something new. That the presence of such a character in Holy Motors is rather ironic, given that the film defies genre and audience expectations. Thusly, Piccoli warns Oscar about the state of the art. Nothing is mentioned about Oscar’s looks and nothing about his age, but the implication is that the audience is to blame. That the audience is no longer interested. (Such lines suit the dialectical purpose that the film serves about cinema itself.) Thus, the distinguishing part between someone like Oscar and someone like Kay is that Kay’s career lives on a lifeline that Oscar’s does not. In this way, through these scenes, Carax illustrates the industrial inequality between male and female actors.
Oscar only inhabits the role of the woman once. Playing an old beggar woman, the ideas that Carax illustrates about ageism in the industry seem to be hammered in, despite this scene coming at the beginning of the film. This beggar woman, slovenly and poor, is ignored by everyone around her. Although the internal monologue seems to have this character represent cinema as a tangible being, aged and unsure of what is to come next, it makes just as much sense to picture her as the older actress no longer able to work.
Holy Motors’ satirical jab at what sex appeal means to the film world is solidified by the motion capture scene, where a woman in a skin tight suit joins Oscar in simulating coitus. The camera pans to reveal that the scenes the actors are standing in for contain creatures reminiscent of the unknown extra-terrestrial from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Sex and sex appeal, therefore, will transcend technology and medium, an omnipresent expression of lust and desire. Here, though, it is able to be manipulated to fit the desires of the viewer, in this case an audience for a science fiction film. Carax implies that with the rapidly changing technology being used to create films, the manipulation that has basically always existed in the art form can be continually extended to augment the natural.
Behind the scenes, there is an even larger discrepancy. Though great female directors like Sofia Coppola, Claire Denis, and other exist, men outnumber women as far as directors go. And though the attention of the film is focused on male character and what that male character does in each scene, the driving force of this film, very literally, is Edith Scob, who drives the limousine. The subtleness of the writing in her character risks her importance as being easily unnoticeable, and though she seems to serve as an assistant to Oscar, her role nonetheless requires that she have control. Scob drives him places, is responsible for the appointments, and ultimately controls what he should do and what his appointments are. Basically, she is a director.
This is aided by the fact that the two have known each other for an extended period of time, making their relationship dynamic not unlike director/actor collaborations, like Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina, Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, Lars von Trier and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Jane Campion and Holly Hunter. Though, the fact that Scob’s role does not enter the limelight to the extent that Lavant’s does only seems to reveal such industrial ignorance.
Though Leos Carax’s Holy Motors works primarily on a dialectical level regarding the state of the art, as it were, it works on another meta-reflexive level: critique of the industry. Though it is probably doubtful that Carax would even identify himself as a feminist, he nonetheless has made a slyly subversive feminist critique of the American film industry. He is essentially an accidental feminist. Similar to Lars von Trier, but in a much lower key and less overt way, his film manages to address society’s expectations for women and in film and also acknowledges the roles they play behind the scenes. All in the beauty of the act.