Previously at the Wellington Film Society: with Leos Carax’s latest, there’s life in cinema yet.
It has perhaps been overstated that Holy Motors is about the death of cinema. Sure, death is the major motif, both personally and collectively, but Leos Carax’s unique film seems to be more about our cynicism with the visual image, about the death of joy and wonderment in cinema. It’s as if Carax is trying to capture that sense of wonderment he had when he first saw Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, or when audiences in the 19th Century were first wowed by Eadward Muybridge’s moving pictures, little imagining that cinema could move from crude human movement to humans replicating dragons having sex. Despite the death that stalks the film, Carax is trying to ensure that we never feel comfortable, that the images shake us from our stupor.
The film opens with a cinema audience, asleep, while Muybridge’s images flicker across the screen. For Carax, the audience is now bored with the moving image, and in effect, this primitive depiction of reality has no sense of mystique to it. Instead, film’s ubiquity and our inability to trust it means we can’t determine what’s real or not. It’s a film made with Jean Baudrillard in mind, where reality has been replaced with signs, simulations, and symbols, and we can’t differentiate between them, and we seemingly make no effort to.
Within this milieu, we see M. Oscar (Denis Lavant), who ‘acts’ within this. He is given various roles to play throughout the course of a day, to the extent that we don’t know exactly who/what M. Oscar’s ‘reality’ is. He’s a character with no discernible centre, with no sense of home or order, that all he does is pretend to be somebody else. He complains that he finds it difficult to ‘act’ nowadays, as he can’t see the camera. In other words, it has become too real, and yet he’s simply an artificial creation for our pleasure performing a variety of roles. M. Oscar’s appointments cover a variety of genres: science fiction, horror, musical, melodrama, gangster, political thriller, and arthouse. Within this multitude of roles, the chameleon-like shifting of persona that modern life demands, how on earth can the emotional, something concrete (if it exists at all) ever be expressed?
It is through this instability that death becomes such a potent theme in the film. Carax’s partner, Russian actor Yekaterina Golubeva, (and star of his previous film Pola X), is thought to have committed suicide in August 2011, and Holy Motors was filmed almost immediately after in September to November 2011. Throughout the film, M. Oscar expresses regret and sorrow, almost as if the film is trying to purge Carax’s own failings. Examples include the scenes with M. Oscar’s ‘daughter’ after the Kylie Minogue party, in which his daughter brutally states that a lie is better for them both, or M. Oscar’’ reaction to Jean’s (‘Seberg’, as played by Kylie Minogue) suicide from the top of the closed department store, La Samaritaine, drawing parallels to Seberg’s tragic life and suicide, Carax’s own career suicide with Les amants du Pont-Neuf (La Samaritaine formed part of the key backdrop to that film), and Golubeva’s death. There is also the acknowledgement by the talking limousines at the end of the film, who, fearing the tip and therefore death, hush themselves to sleep. The final image of Paris, that great city of light, is the Panthéon, the stark place where the ‘great’ French are entombed.
However, it’s arguably a more hopeful film than this. Carax subverts established images so that their artificiality is highlighted. We can’t simply accept them. M. Oscar’s first role is to play an old beggar woman, and any visitor to Paris would have seen this figure hunched at major sites with a cup out (to the point that one wonders if there are a gang of them). M. Oscar’s depiction of them is unnervingly real, but as we have seen him put on the make-up, we aren’t fooled by his performance. We hear Kylie Minogue but we don’t see her as Kylie Minogue. The entr’acte, a traditional intermission in musicals/films, is an accordion orchestra storming through a church, hardly the relaxing point in which we can have a breather. M. Oscar’s driver, Céline, is played by Édith Scob, who played the disfigured daughter in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, and when she dons the famous mask from that film and announces she is coming home, it’s far removed from its original context. M. Oscar dresses up as a character from the silent classic Les Vampires (1915) and then acts futuristically in green screen. It is through this subversion, through the constant re-working and re-challenging of signs and symbols, that Holy Motors derives its power: things only become old hat and untrustworthy if you blindly accept them to be. It’s almost as if, as Carax suggests, you find the real by being as unreal and unbelievable as possible.