There are spoilers therein, but keep in mind that this isn’t really a film that can be spoiled. It will be weird and rewarding regardless of whether or not the audience is “spoiled” or not.
The church of cinema is a sacred one for us movie lovers, as any church is for any person. Everyone has their way of mediation and finding what is important and personal to them. They might be Christians or Yankees fans or Thomas Pynchon fans, or anything else random, but really anything suffices. Everyone finds what is important to them, whether it is Kurosawa films or reality television.
Cinema is the church that interests director Leos Carax, and one I identify myself to at this point in my life. Religion, a faith in something bigger than oneself, is a way humans attach themselves to complicated ideas. Science cannot quantify art or faith, which makes it something that can only be understood in the mind, as opposed to an objective truth. Now, objectively William Shakespeare is a better writer than Stephanie Meyer and Martin Scorsese is a better director than Michael Bay, but plenty of people “feel” as if Meyer or Bay are panicle “artists.” You can’t convince these fanatics otherwise, and more power to them, even if they’re wrong[i]. Art has that level of subjectivity. And if someone has limited access to stories, Twilight may indeed be a high point in one’s artistic life.
But Leos Carax, in his avant-garde film Holy Motors, with the help of the multi-talented actor Denis Lavant[ii], believes in cinema as an institution. Good and bad. Cinema is complex, and, unfortunately, some of the best aspects of cinema are dead. One of Carax’s biggest influences, Jean-Luc Godard, announced famously in WeekEnd that cinema is indeed dead, and to a certain extent, Carax buys into this, but not completely. Holy Motors begins with Carax, playing himself, waking from bed and using his finger, which has a key growing from it, to unlock a door hidden behind the wallpaper. In the next room, through the locked door, Carax enters the balcony of a movie theater. He looks right into the audience’s faces. A grotesque baby and a humongous dog walk down the aisle, and no one pays them any heed. They are fascinated by the film, like a congregation listening to their pastor. And the film begins.
The film that commences after the bizarre introduction is no easier to watch or understand. Denis Lavant plays an actor named Oscar who rides from role to role, which are called called “appointments,” in a limousine. He actually lives out his roles, instead of acting within a film. Other actors appear in the “scenes” he acts out as well. Oscar’s first role is a paranoid banker who leaves his house to go to work. Quickly, Oscar changes out of this role and changes into the role of an old crone in the back seat of the limo, which has a make-up mirror and chests of costumes. As the crone, he stands on the sidewalk, asking for money, hunched over a cane with a cup out for the charity. No one is giving enough to take notice or comply. Oscar’s crone character is ignored. This is a quick role for Oscar, in terms of runtime in the film, and one that is ultimately unsuccessful for him. He goes from incredibly wealthy to debilitatingly poor in a short amount of time, showing the range of the roles he can play. Oscar, from the get-go, is an amazing actor for hire who drives from shoot to shoot in a white limousine.
Oscar goes on to be a special-effects character, wearing the body-suit and motion-capture balls, complete with violence and sex to go around for everyone in modern movies. Then he is the Beast character is a very strange Beauty and the Beast, where he a sewer-residing leprechaun who bites off people’s fingers and licks armpits and eats flowers in the most unusual manner, with Eva Mendes as a beautiful, ice-queen supermodel. Oscar also plays a terrible father, in a more dramatic and less fantastic role, who is too hard on his daughter. Then Oscar is featured in an interlude where he plays an impromptu accordion solo with a full, accordion-led band. Then Oscar plays two sides of a mob feud, where one character transposes his make-up to someone else. Then he shoots his original banker in the face, playing a killer with barbed-wire wrapped around his face. Then Oscar is a dying old man. Then Oscar talks to an old friend, played by Kylie Minogue, who sings a beautiful song, which ends with her committing suicide while playing a different role. At the end, Oscar goes home to his family, made up of chimpanzees.
The film is as bizarre as it sounds, and it is equal parts hilarious and utterly depressing. Carax has conflicted views on cinema, which features a lot of violence and sex, but not enough heart. Even in those hyper-violent moments, we find ourselves captivated, proving cinema has changed throughout the years, but it still holds its sway over its congregation. In between moments of hopelessness, we receive moments of pure elation, like the accordion interlude.
But regardless of moments of joy, the actors/characters suffer. Oscar, when he is not giving his entire being into his appointments, sits in existential crisis at the back of the limo. He is not a fan of the trajectory of his career, with shrinking cameras, so small he cannot even see them anymore, and more business-like producers. But he finds his way, and he gives everything into his profession. It is as if he is a part of a congregation and he is not a fan of his church’s trajectory, but he will never leave. Because it is a part of him, his culture, and his make-up. He is not the only actor who suffers; Minogue’s character sadly sings “Who were we?” in one of the film’s two memorable musical moments, which ends with her blood splattered on the ground below—plummeting to the death in one of her many roles.
Towards the end of the film, in a moment of levity, Oscar talks to his limo driver, and he asks her to make him laugh. A bird flies before the limo, and they are scared, but then they laugh. Earlier, he gets to know another actor personally, after his old man character dies before her. He tells her he’d like to work with her later. And we feel as if they will, and they will receive their moment of pure, beautiful cinema[iii]. In these moments, Oscar is happy, as if he is the one being entertained and not the actor drained by the critical world of art. After he laughs with his driver, Oscar wordlessly goes to his last appointment of the night, and he spends the night in his last unbearable role, with a faux chimpanzee family, like a freakish 1950s American sit-com.
But that is not the end of the film. The limousine returns to its garage, labeled “Holy Motors,” and when the drivers go home, the limos remain. They talk, about nothing really, but it all ends with a prayer. “Amen.” Even the vehicle of art itself, film, recognizes the debt we all owe—to something bigger than ourselves.
This bigger cinematic idea proves that cinema is not dead. Artists will always find a way to communicate, and as long as there re camera, there will be film. As we enter 2013, 2012 proves to be an incredibly strong year in film, with many challenging and ambitious films. There are the misanthropes who will find faults in anything new, but with great films like The Master and Amour, and even Carax’s own Holy Motors, filmmakers prove there are infinite new ways to renew a genre, a faith for the forward-thinking.
Carax is ingrained in cinema. Popular and art house. He sees the forest through the trees.
I give Holy Motors a lite 9 out of 10.
[i] There is no getting around this fact. Two people can debate on the quality of Beasts of the Southern Wild all they want, and have a great debate with valid points on either side, and I’m on the “Beasts is an awesome movie” side, but there is no debate: Shakespeare is great, Meyer is crap. The end.
[ii] One of the best performances of the year. Lavant can be heartfelt, funny, and frightening at the drop of the hat, but he is always physically and emotionally in character. I’d love to see more of Lavant in the future, and I need to go back and look at more of his past work. His bestial sewer leprechaun character is from another Leos Carax film called Tokyo! and I’ll be sure to check that out soon.
[iii] Coincidentally, this scene reminded me of Michael Haneke’s Amour. I wonder if the real-life Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant felt this connection that characters Oscar and the young actress felt in Holy Motors.