Film Review: Leos Carax Holy Motors 2012
A dreamer (Leos Carax) wakes up and walks over to the wall. His prosthetic finger is a metal key that unlocks a wall covering. He enters the balcony of a movie theater. Below him in the orchestra an audience of unmoving spectres are watching a film. It’s a scene reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera, which also begins with a machine (the movie camera on a tripod) and a view of the audience—but here the machine is the filmmaker’s metallic finger; the apparatus of cinema is invisible.
Holy Motors takes place in the digital age. Tombstones are incised with the web addresses of the deceased and invite visitors; Carax’s protagonist Mr. Oscar/Mr. Merde (Denis Levant) moves from appointment to appointment in a world of simulacra, changing identities—in his white limousine—to a beggar, a motion-capture artist, an abusive father, a killer and the killer’s victim, a one-eyed derelict who kidnaps a top model (Eva Mendes) during a photo shoot in a cemetery, a banker’s assassin and the assassinated banker, Isabel Archer’s uncle on his deathbed (this from Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady), a romantic who wanders with a long-lost love (Kylie Minogue) in the ruins of an historic Paris department store just before she jumps to her death….
At the Harvard Film Archive showing on February 23 (2013), Carax, hiding behind large sunglasses in a darkened theatre, appeared as a reluctant and morose participant in the Q&A session following the film. Apparently Carax hates to appear in public; despite this the ever-resourceful film programmer and host David Pendleton was able to coax a few comments out of him: Carax hates modern digital technology, especially film technology. You used to see the wheels of projectors turning, and the cameras had a certain weight and presence on the set. This is all gone now—the cameras are practically invisible. He is sick of Paris because it never changes. He would rather film in Germany or Russia but none of those projects got off the ground.
Carax said that he finds it weird that he makes films with “dead people” for people who are alive. Perhaps he is referring to French critic André Bazin’s famous statement about the “mummy effect” of cinema—the way that the medium fixes people in time, so that their image persists uncannily after their own death. But this does not quite seem to capture the mood of Holy Motors, which abounds in neo-fascist rituals of power, aestheticized violence, celebrations of death, and ascetic sex in which women are always the victims (the priapic derelict is content to rest his head on the lap of the passive model, then dresses her up in purdah; the abused daughter is subjected to the sexual innuendoes of her father). As Mr. Oscar drives away for his work-day, he leaves a stronghold of a house defended by armed guards while his children wave from the roof; a black car containing more security guards follows the limousine, driven by his female chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob).
The name of the chauffeur should give us pause. Louis Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) revolutionized French literature by introducing slang and spoken language novels such as Voyage to the End of the Night (1932). Céline is also one of the only major cultural figures, along with the poet Ezra Pound and the Italian futurists to embrace fascism and anti-semitism. Carax’s film also voyages “to the end of the night,” showing us images of Paris that are alternately sordid, decaying, or decadent (the deathbed scene in the hotel). The white limousine functions as the “good machine” which offers a place for the staging of the successive simulated situations, the place where Mr. Oscar/Mr. Merde changes costume and makeup. I couldn’t help thinking of F. T. Marinetti’s 1909 futurist manifesto which exalts the machine speed of the car and says: “Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!”
Holy Motors is an absurdist film in which there is no cause and effect; at the end of the day the protagonist returns not to the home he left that morning but to a household in which he is married to a chimpanzee (is this a reference to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, in which there is a dance number where the chimpanzee represents a Jewish wife?). The last scene belongs to the line of parked limousines who converse about their day—the machines are running things after all and we humans are their playthings.
It should be said that hundreds of young people lined up outside the Archive in the vain hope of seeing the film and of witnessing the mumblings of the director in the Q&A after the film. Holy Motors may have a fascist sensibility but it is one that appeals to today’s youth. The shape of things to come?
Note: Mr. Carax’s visit was sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and by the French Consulate.
Inez Hedges teaches film and literature at Northeastern University and is the author of several books on film and culture.