“Film is dead? Has Hollywood murdered the movies? Is movie culture dead?” Whether eulogizing cinema or disputing these premature obituaries, a lot of film critics had death on their minds this year. So, it seems, did French filmmaker Leos Carax. Holy Motors (2012), his first feature in 13 years, is haunted by its own perceived obsolescence. Nipping at the film’s heels are some of the very same divides that have been plaguing cinephiles as of late: art film vs. blockbuster, story vs. spectacle, and especially celluloid vs. digital projection. But this is no mere epitaph. Morbid in its joy, joyous in its morbidity, Holy Motors is a meta-movie that teases apart its medium’s secrets. It intertwines film’s agonizing death with explosive resurrection.
The vehicle for Carax’s delirious vision is star Denis Lavant, who spends a series of vignettes (skits? modules?) shifting from one persona to another. Businessman, beggarwoman, sleazy hired killer: each metamorphosis is startlingly thorough, the only constants being Lavant’s homuncular stature and feral energy. For one episode, he becomes a rumpled middle-class breadwinner contending with a daughter on the verge of adolescence. For another, he’s Monsieur Merde, the crude imp into whom Carax channels all of his most nihilistic impulses. (Amusingly, Merde and the father both hold their cigarettes between the same fingers, but are otherwise totally dissimilar.) It’s at least a dozen performances in one, with the reality of Lavant’s “real” identity, Monsieur Oscar, impossible to pin down.
Oscar feels like a paper doll, or perhaps like some Platonic ideal of “human.” He’s infinitely malleable, putting on attitudes and relationships like we’d put on clothes. He’s essentially an actor, albeit one who refers to his performances as “appointments” and meets each of them via limo at a different Parisian locale; an actor with no obvious audience aside from us, the viewers. This is his job, and it’s killing him. Matching the film’s overarching exhaustion and ecstasy, Oscar throws himself body and soul into each assignment. He dances! Destroys! Plays the accordion! But in between, he drinks on an empty stomach and vents to his motherly driver, Céline. Underlying (perhaps fueling) Lavant’s theatrics is a river of pain. The pain of dishonesty; the pain of memory.
This is, of course, all a bitter allegory for filmmaking. Oscar’s outrageous and often physically impossible stunts—e.g. murdering and being murdered by his own doppelgänger—stand in for the massive expenditures and effort that the film industry pours into staging and recording complex illusions. His uncanny impersonation of an elderly, dying man consoling the tearful niece at his bedside foregrounds the way movies bend space and time, the way they simulate emotion so artfully you can’t tell it’s faked. Rarely have I seen a film so keenly aware of its own artifice and, what’s more, of the comfort that artifice gives us as moviegoers. Through one puckish joke after another, Holy Motors represents cinema as absurd yet necessary, dangerous yet therapeutic, beautiful yet deadly.
The most overt of these jokes is Oscar’s visit to a studio (pictured above) while clad in a motion capture body suit. He performs some acrobatics, fires a gun, then mimes sex with a similarly mocap-suited contortionist. By way of punchline, Carax pulls out the process’s final product: a pair of digitally rendered fantasy creatures fucking wildly. It’s a scathing burlesque of 21st century Hollywood as land of pixelated, lowest common denominator entertainment—and for all its satirical vulgarity, the segment’s still hugely gratifying, as kinetic and bizarre as anything else in the film. It’s cinema’s future, and palpable within it is the prick of nostalgia for an analog past.
Holy Motors spans the gulf between past and future. They’re both here, one giving way to the other. The film is a tragedy of loss and regret, of interpersonal connections formed and then torn asunder, of Paris’s warehouses and alleyways. “Who were we?” sings Kylie Minogue late in the film. “Who would we have become if we’d done if we’d done differently… back then?” (Similarly poignant is the song playing over Oscar’s final appointment, Gérard Manset’s backwards-looking “Revivre”—or in English, “relive.”) “No new beginnings,” concludes Kylie. No going back. The only option is forward out of death, to take solace in what Oscar calls “the beauty of the act,” to create something with beauty and passion, something like Holy Motors. To do your job.