Strangers on a Train
Sometime during the Lynchian road trip, the bizarre adventure, the fever dream of cinematic history being, essentially looked over and destroyed, I fell in love with Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Maybe it was the episodic style, presenting one sequence to the next, beautifully contained and yet inseparable from the whole; maybe it was Denis Lavant’s transcendent performance, one that epitomized the very word: performance; maybe it was the delirious juxtaposition of youth and age, seemingly representing the ever changing medium it was allegorically documenting; perhaps it was the stylized transition from genre, style, and tone for each moment of the film, never predictable but always enticing; or maybe it was watching Kylie Minogue, that pop songstress so elegantly clothed in a simple beige jacket, contemplating the exact existential crisis that was not only applicable to the protagonist (if you can call him that), but to, again, the medium itself. That inherent weirdness and obscene aberrant quality of Holy Motors is part of why the film resonates so oddly and so strongly once you leave the theater. It is, in essence, not only a perfect response to the “celluloid vs. digital” debate (as well as the “End of Film” debate), it’s the perfect eulogy, although premature in my opinion, to film as a medium. It’s a swooning love letter to a powerful platform for which art can be as conventional or as surreal as it wants to be.
*MAJOR SPOILERS DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE!*
The audience might as well be sent down the rabbit hole, but instead, we are initially lead through a door, hidden in a wall, papered with trees. We are taking a walk into the woods, like a Grimm fairy tale modernized and appropriated to new technological and philosophical insight. Loosely inspired by a short story by ETA Hoffman, a man wakes up to hear the reactions of an audience in “the next room”. He uses his middle finger as a key and unlocks the door and takes a step into a grand cinema house, with an audience watching King Vidor’s film The Crowd. He peers over, watching the crowd, so intoxicated by the images on the screen. This is hardly the most startling image in the film, never mind the beginning of the sequence. What’s most startling about this sequence is a wide shot of the audience. Seeing it in a dark theater, this image is like looking into a mirror, and sends a jolt to the stomach. Reminiscent of a shot from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, this one shot sets the tone for the film, where it will be as much about the audience as it will be the actor.
The Old Lady
The distinctive looking and yet ever chameleon-esque Denis Lavant portrays, amongst other things/people, Monsieur Oscar, who, at first, seems like a mild mannered business man with many an appointment spread throughout his day. Getting into the white limousine driven by the equally enigmatic Celine (Edith Scob), he speaks on his Bluetooth piece to someone about the business as a whole. It’s failing and, as he says, “we get the blame.” As subtle as this sounds, it’s one of many instances in which the focus is on film as a medium and its transformative ways and the waves of influence and impact it has. Film is failing and they get the blame. Who, exactly, is the “we” in this situation? The businessmen, the suit clad executive producers and studio heads? Should that answer be a yes, Carax jokingly pokes fun at their own martyrdom, pointing to the industry’s constant need for reinvention by making something old something new (3D, remakes, reboots, etc.). But, there is a slight acknowledgement that, really, reinvention is necessary for any artistic medium. Reinvention of the medium, how it is presented, even reinvention of the artist or performer.
After his phone call, he takes a look at the first “appointment”, which we only see as a file. Could this too allude to the fact that film is transitioning from celluloid to digital files? His first appointment then contrasts and juxtaposes that very idea, with Lavant putting on his first costume as an old lady, which recalls the old lady in Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy. Kieslowski’s visual metaphor is employed similarly, but does double time, working to show the struggle of age, but to also show that, while the woman is begging, she is being ignored by virtually everyone on the street. This is the first human iteration not only of classic performance, but of film itself. The people living in a contemporary world have no time for anything old (old movies, black and white, old people, etc.); they just want what’s new and whatever is fastest.
For the old lady, we never see how Oscar transforms into her, but anyone who wonders that will, of course, get a glimpse. The interior of the limousine, as anachronistic and quaint as limousines are (one of the main attractions for both Carax as a filmmaker and the film as a whole), is the film set, or perhaps the dressing room. It may be a hybrid of the two, but, like a traveling circus going from stop to stop, everything that Oscar needs is in there, even though it seems logistically impossible for certain things to fit (much like certain rooms, windows, and doors in Kubrick’s The Shining.)
The Motion Capture Room
From sitting at the deathbed at film, Oscar travels to the birth of something new: digital. As he walks towards his rendezvous point, the factory outside leaves an impression of what film has, essentially, always been: an industry. As soon as they realized you could make a profit off of movies, from the inception of Hollywood to the Star System to whatever the hell era we live in today, film has been an industry, and a cruel one at that. Notice that from Oscar travels from one end of the scale to the other, with (so far) nothing in between. It’s the cruelty of time passing you by without pity.
Oscar walks into a room full of laser, wearing some sort of dark, skin tight Lycra material with large, white bulbs on them. If you have ever watched a documentary on how Gollum was brought to life, or how characters in video games move around, you will understand, to some extent, what Oscar is doing: he’s in a motion capture studio. But why? Obviously, the nature of the film won’t permit that to be told explicitly, but Oscar elegantly does a set of acrobatics and fight choreography by himself, portraying, no doubt, a fight scene. He runs on a treadmill with a machine gun while a green screen behind him illustrates odd cubic structures. The artificiality of the sequence suggests what many people often argue whenever groups like the NRA clamor to blame films and video games for real life violence: it’s all fake. Oscar does his dance with death in the scene with no one and does it in a starkly naked studio. There is an argument to be made that violence in film, from the hyperrealism and cartoonish quality of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to the more obvious realism of something like Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah: the point is, none of it is real. But, as the weird sex scene will tell you, it comes from reality: whatever sexuality and violence is portrayed in film, it’s portrayed as a reflection of the society that the film lies within contextually.
The video game aesthetic, then, also suggests youth’s dwindling interest with film. Admittedly, the one big thing video games have over the cinema is their interactive nature. You can do meaningless tasks like care for your pet or you can carry out a mission in a video game; in cinema, you can only watch. That somewhat obstructive nature between audience and action is why many play video games as opposed to watching film. I am certainly not claiming one as better than the other, simply noting the subtle commentary in the film.
For all of its explicit quality, the sex scene in the motion capture room isn’t technically explicit. Yes, two people, both in kind of ridiculous outfits, do very strange things to one another, but what you see and what you don’t see is blurred. You expect to see something, even if you don’t, and that audience expectation is aided by the actions and movements the actors make. Sexuality in cinema is at once taboo and yet no holds barred; paradoxical in nature.
The film doesn’t limit its own discourse merely on the transformative nature of film, but plays with genre semantics. There’s a crime segment, a domestic encounter with a daughter, a deliberately theatrical musical sequence, melodrama. Godard would be, in a way, proud of how Carax essentially treats everything as cinema.
The Beauty and the Beast
Oscar’s next appointment is where the project of Holy Motors technically originated from: he reprises a character from the anthology Tokyo! This segment is Carax’s monster movie, almost as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon were to wander into the streets of Paris and kidnap a beautiful girl. Even the music is straight from an old horror movie, with its rush of strings. The grotesque, zombified (?), flower eating freak plays the Beast while Eva Mendes plays the Beauty. On his way to kidnap the pulchritudinous model, he traverses through a cemetery, almost as if he is the living representation of death, however antithetical that sounds. He eats flowers, as aforementioned, and he also eats fingers. But for all the destruction he causes in the cemetery in Paris, he instantly recognizes beauty: he becomes immediately enamored of Mendes’ gorgeous model. Carax name drops Diane Arbus, and like the famed photographer, he shoots Oscar’s weird creature with fascination, though never quite demeaning him to a freak show that Arbus was occasionally guilty of. It’s the fascination of Beauty versus the Beast and what exactly constitutes one or the other. Carax shoots a close-up of the man’s face (however unpleasant that might be for the viewer), and the milky eye catches one’s attention. It’s about Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder, is it not? This is accentuated by the fact that, throughout this segment, Mendes is never terribly threatened or even frightened of the man. She is not quite submissive or subservient, but simply not threatened. Further working on the eye motif, the monster brings Mendes down to a catacomb, covers her exposed body, veils her face, but cuts slits for the eyes, which we see plainly. Then, you can jump to Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, which will have resonance throughout the film.
This juxtaposition of Beauty exposed or protected reminds one of a Madonna/Whore complex. Although the segment doesn’t lead in that direction, the idealized look of the model both bare and covered certainly conjures those images. It then isn’t as much the “male gaze” as the “monster gaze”. But, one wonders to what extent that the monster movie share its ties with something more exploitive. The monster in question bites off a poor photographer’s assistant’s finger, but he practically ogles Mendes. That exploitative nature, though, is subverted into something more Freudian, something more Oedipal in nature. While Mendes is veiled in what looks like something from traditional Indian culture, the monster strips naked, lies on the bench where Mendes is seated, and rests his head on her lap. She begins to sing him a lullaby. There’s a nurturing quality to this scene: it isn’t quite Stockholm syndrome, but perhaps a deep connection the two already had. There is, of course, the juxtaposition of his nudity and her lack of exposure, calling into question both, the objectification of women and the often lack thereof for men in film. Nary is there an erect penis in the cinema. Very rarely is there a penis period. But, here, we have it all.
The mystical quality of forests is explored in Shakespeare, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Holy Motors. We enter into the woods and end up in a movie theater. We drive through a forest, directly recalling Eyes without a Face again. It seems strange that no actual segments take place in a forest, but, when a forest appears, it is always like a tunnel that leads from point A to point B. The forest is the Rabbit Hole, as much a medium of transportation as the limos.
The Sins of the Daughter
The segment that follows is one of the more “explicit” ones to show the contrast, almost battle of tradition between the old and the new. Oscar inhabits an odd realism that, unlike the previous segments, was not apparent. Playing a working class father this time around, he picks up his daughter from a party, one that blares self referentially “I Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue. His “daughter”’s name is Angele, and while playing the introverted wallflower in the bathroom while everyone else has a good time, she sprinkles glitter on herself, the last remnant of true childhood relegated to fake fairy dust. The issues at hand, primarily the introverted personality of the daughter, who is as angelic as her name suggests, pays tribute to the same kind of angsty plot lines as the films of John Hughes. Carax plays the demographic card here in a more obvious way, portraying the various audiences that film has, instead of lumping them collectively as one thing.
The father makes accusations about the daughter’s personality, even her very youth. Demographics aside, the old guards of celluloid think very little of the newness of digital cinema, as it first gains confidence in itself and then wallows back. The father accuses the daughter of lying (which, in this case, she did), but the father is too confident in his own honesty. He seems to spout a less direct version of Godard’s iconic quote, “Film is truth at twenty-four frames per second.” The tangibility of the medium, though, doesn’t affect its honesty, does it? (Check out my essay on the anthological horror film V/H/S for more on that V/H/S might be called the “trashy, less good Holy Motors“.) In an abstract way, although to assert this might be a stretch, the daughter, being digital cinema, is at her Dogme 95 phase; that awkward moment in puberty where you are experimenting with what you are capable of as a person/medium. Digital cinema is at its birth and experimental period, before it becomes a much more attractive option (which makes me sound like a cad). But, like Dogme 95 (which only lasted a short period of time, as far as film movements go), must “live with itself”, the punishment given to the daughter for lying. But, truth is relative, especially in film.
Although we are told that we, the audience, are about to be given a standard break (standard in the sense that older films used to do this), Carax isn’t about to let you walk in the halls or to the concession stand during a typical intermission. He is just as invested in having you seated for the break as he is for the rest of the film. So, the “Entr’acte” is only misleading if you read it as saying “Intermission”. Its actual translation is “Interval” (according to the onscreen subtitles), and, much like every other segment in the film, works in its own contained little world as well as with the rest of the film. Monsieur Oscar is out of his costume (or is he? Probably not, now that I think of it) and leads a band of musicians, primarily playing accordions, to the sound of RL Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride”, covered by Doctor L.
The title of the song alone seems to relate to letting scar ride through the night, from appointment to appointment in the limousine. The passivity of the title makes it seem as if this is just part of the job.
It might be filled with laughter and mirth at times, as more and more members join the walking troupe and Lavant lets out a cackle. In one glorious long tracking shot, the scene recalls Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (as Vincent and Mia walk into Jack Rabbit Slim’s) and Scorsese’s GoodFellas (as Henry walks into a club) in its fluidity and focus on the subject walking as well as their surroundings. Look closely and you can surmise that they are playing in a church, a place that has often condemned the great pieces of artistic genius in cinema.
This subversion of musicality itself might be best epitomized in a lull in the music, when Lavant suddenly shouts “Trois, Douze, Merde!” Translating as “Three, Twelve, Shit!” Carax refuses to bend to the typical musical sequence found in the theatricality of the 1950s and earlier, as the general subversion of the medium throughout the film. Blasphemy on the medium? Maybe so. Maybe part of admitting the death of something is recognizing its flaws as opposed to inherently placing it upon a pedestal in an extremely unrealistic and idealistic way.
They won’t stand still, they won’t stop. The band plays on.
Therefore, the title also fits as before the song finishes, we find Oscar back at home in his limo, getting ready for the next assignation
Oscar’s next segment seems fit in a film detailing a gang war, and it is here that we get a glimpse inside the file. So, a combination of espionage and gang violence? As the segments grow weirder and, for lack of a better word, more Lynchian, their nature as an amalgamation of a billion different things seems more obvious.
There’s a page that says “Target” with a picture on it (unsurprisingly, that of Oscar himself in a new disguise) and a weapon (a switchblade). The mission matters less in comparison to the concept of doubles. Oscar ends up facing himself. Hitchcock played around with doubles throughout his career, most notably in Vertigo and Strangers on a Train. However, if Oscar somehow represents the medium itself in one way or another, watching the bizarre confrontation play out is like watching VHS and Betamax duke it out. Here, doubles represent that failed transition from one medium to another, where two are practically the same but one has the upper hand, for one reason or another. And, as Oscar comes out alive by the skin of his teeth, one is reminded about how Blu-ray narrowly came out on top of HD DVD “back in the day”.
The execution of the scene, though, seems to fit the fun, exploitive environment of something like Enter the Dragon, but retaining the same style and respect as the standoff in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The goriness, however, is more Grand Guignol than either of the two films. It ends up being far more grotesque than one expects.
As Oscar dresses the dead man up, there’s a switch of identity: the actor has no identity but the characters he portrays and the lives he inhabits.
The Beauty of the Act
Michael Piccoli, who is a titan of the cinema, has already settled into the limo as the fake wounded Oscar gets back in, and their conversation is, while very expository, enlightening nonetheless. Piccoli, whoever he is, comments that Oscar looks tired, that he doesn’t seem to enjoy his work as much as he used to. That the audience doesn’t believe what they’re seeing. Here, the audience is explicitly referred to, as if the theater goers aren’t there or, at least, aren’t on a level for Piccoli to really acknowledge. This makes sense. Dressed in a suit, rotund, and smoking a cigar, Piccoli inhabits the stereotypical persona of an executive producer. While the producer reprimands the actor for the work and the lack of audience, the actor says that it’s about the change.
This piece of exposition might hurt the film, but I enjoyed it. Oscar refers to the size of the cameras, perhaps criticizing the democratization of cinema? The old guard does that sort of thing, but Holy Motors was shot on digital, for economic reasons. Carax himself has reservations about filming on digital. That criticism of democratization, though, seems to be criticized in and of itself. Oscar continues to lament, the victim of nostalgia. In this way, Oscar plays the old fool, yearning for the days of yore. But, nonetheless, we sympathize with him.
What is the most pressing point of the conversation, the most you can take away from it? It’s all about the beauty of the act. The many definitions of “beauty” from taste to even demographic are briefly acknowledged. Both admit that it’s all about the eye of the beholder. But, again, it’s the beauty of the act. Cinema is beautiful in everything it achieves.
In that short conversation, Carax lays out the thesis of the entire film.
As Oscar and Celine travel in the car out and about Paris, occasionally a monitor will come down to reveal what is on the outside of the car. But, as opposed to merely showing whatever the camera on the car sees in a very plain lens, the perception of the camera itself changes. From night vision goggles to an intoxicating Solaris to a Dali-esque dream pixelization, the world changes depending on how we choose to see it. . Back projection is also used as they ride in the car, but it doesn’t just look like Paris. Instead, if you look closely, it seems more like a negative, thus recalling Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. It’s a simple point, but effective nonetheless. It’s how we see things that affect how we live
I mentioned that the tracking shot of the Interval almost paid homage to Scorsese’s GoodFellas, but even more so, a the next segment does that. After Piccoli’s “get with the times, Oscar” executive departs, Oscar jumps out of the car after seeing someone (himself, again, no doubt) with a gun and a ski mask with barbed wire, something that looks like it came out of Lady Gaga’s closet. He shoots the lookalike (again, the transition battle), but the bodyguards (?) shoot him. Nevertheless, his faithful Céline treats him as if he should just get up and not miss the next appointment.
The shooting without reason, without motive, and without method behind madness may slyly and nastily criticize the NRA-inspired rants on film violence. The nonsensicalness of it all doesn’t especially play well without any explanation, and the short length of the scene is almost devoid of context. But that may be the point. In reality, there if often very little context, despite the attempts of many to provide it. Back to Scorsese: GoodFellas provides context for the crimes when it needs to. Beyond that, what more do you have beyond the desire for power? And, in the hierarchy of cinema, there’s always power to be had.
The Death Bed
What Michael Haneke’s Amour did in two hours Carax did in ten minutes. That’s not to say one is better than the other, but the essence of both scenes are fairly similar, but both ring with resonance in different ways. Carax has the old man in the death bed visited by his daughter (or is it niece?). As he lies dying, the young woman sits there, and their conversation is filled with emotion. Perhaps it is the same daughter from an earlier segment reincarnated, digital cinema finally taking a new aesthetic as celluloid fades away.
But death doesn’t happen. Not for real anyways. The scene ends quite explicitly, suggesting that the entire thing was, as we know, a production for an audience. Death doesn’t happen in the cinema, so why should we suggest that cinema is dead?
Aside from “Let My Baby Ride”, the penultimate sequence of the film is my favorite. After a near run in with another limo with another actor, Oscar gets out of the car and recognizes the actress. They have a past. And they’re about to tell you about the Past (capital P) in one gorgeous song. The actress, played by none other than pop singer Kylie Minogue (whose hit single played in the film earlier), is waiting for her partner and what might be her final role.
Oscar and the Actress, who goes by Eva Grace (Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly?) walk into an abandoned building, where strewn on the floor are mannequins. They’re like the bodies of past actors and performers, and beside them, as the two walk through the building, are cameras of all shapes and sizes. As Minogue sings what is essentially a song questioning the self, the performance, and the art, we again must contemplate the peripeteia from medium to medium.
In such a short song, Minogue is able to tell a story and yet convey the very thesis of the film all at once. The point may be that the permutations of cinema are as interconnected to our lives as any other emotion, to an extent where no one quite realizes the importance. Cinema is part of our lives.
There’s that nagging question of the title, “Who Were We?”, which applies existentially to Oscar and Eva. Who were they before they began performing? Is it so much a part of them that they can barely recall the past? Can we ourselves recall a past without film, or some form of art? Art is part of our identity, as much as the viewer and participant as the creator. It appeals to the Leanian melodrama of Brief Encounter, but avoids going overboard. Minogue hits all the right notes.
Her performance isn’t over, though. They reach the rooftop, and Oscar leaves. The man whom Eva was to meet comes and the two are ready for their final role, Eva as a stewardess on her final night. She jumps to her death, a falling starlet. But, as scene with Oscar himself previously with a switchblade to the neck, the old man dying in bed, and the random shooting, the performance never dies. It just goes on.
The Way Home
After the sublime sequence, Oscar is done for the night. In a very, very odd sequence, he is brought home to a set of identical houses and is given a key, part of his mission. The target is his own family. What surprises me about this shot is that, although there is a good deal of importance suggested regarding the key, like a MacGuffin out of Mulholland Drive, there is no insert shot. Which, altogether, forces the viewer to reevaluate their expectations. Inside, his family is… a bunch of monkeys. I have no idea what the hell that means. But the key could be, again, the power to democratize not only cinema, but art and life itself. It’s the key to understanding. Or is it? The key, instead of representing any one thing is, like the film itself, just another piece of the deliriously beautiful puzzle.
If cars could talk, if cinema could talk, maybe this is what it would have to say. The last sequence, after the gorgeous Edith Scob finally dons her mask, paying homage to her role in Eyes without a Face, involves the limos at the Holy Motors garage talking amongst themselves. It’s the old guards talking with one another, probably, debating the merits of their job, how they may be out of the job soon, etc. Black and White are the cars, the medium old and anachronistic and strange in a much different world. Like the old guards, the cars are starting to realize their place. The cars’ desire to sleep outweighs their desire to continually grumble and argue about experience and change. Carax is putting the argument to rest. It’s the medium that matters. Like Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message.
The above several thousand words probably do not matter in the least. As minutely ambitious as this segment by segment breakdown might be, I would just like to say that I loved this film. I avoided writing about it for a long time because how could I compete with Andreas Stoehr’s excellent piece on the film? We both agree that this film subverts cinema as a whole, constantly battling against itself, reconciling with change, and encounters the “ghosts of the past”. That’s the beauty of it. Depending on whom you ask, it embraces and criticizes the transformative nature of film. It does what everyone does with something they love that changes. Like a good TV show that suddenly goes down the toilet, it praises what it once was, what it can be, but also condemns what it is becoming and the opportunities it wastes. In the end, like that TV show, the film embraces its existence as a whole. Because it has become so integral to how one lives their life (yeah, I know people who swear by Mad Men, and I still haven’t seen it yet).
Cinema is everything, to an extent where you could argue that the performances that Oscar makes aren’t performances at all. Allegorically, Oscar may just be living his life. He may be inhabiting lives, but maybe we all are performing for someone or something. (Enter: Gender Performativity Theory with Judith Butler!) Like the Bard wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage!”
Holy Motors is a stunningly bold entry into the cinematic canon, as frenzied and beautiful as anything Luis Bunuel or David Lynch has made. It is dizzyingly beautiful accompanied by technical prowess and gorgeous cinematography that is fitted appropriately for every scene. And, of course, Denis Lavant is the star. He is probably the French equivalent to Daniel Day-Lewis, and much like Day-Lewis, I have no idea what Lavant actually looks like. Underneath all that makeup and despite his distinctive features, he truly embodies the performance. Stanislavsky would be proud.
Holy Motors isn’t just, as Michael Piccoli’s large executive says, about the Beauty of the Act. It’s about the Beauty of the Art.
“Who Were We?”