In the prologue to Holy Motors, Léos Carax awakes from thirteen years of exile to venture through a portal into the cinema. Standing above the audience like Moses on Mount Sinai, he performs within the space of a single cut an act of spiritual surrogation, transplanting himself into the body of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), an enigmatic man who will assume, throughout the film, eleven different faces for eleven different lives. The prologue imparts no context to the viewer with which to understand these lives, nor does it address why and for whom they are so briefly being lived. In this sense, can one interpret Holy Motors as a series of independent vignettes, motivated not by any established emotional or filmic logic, but purely by the act of living?
Of course, we forget that before they became known as cinema, this was the motivation behind the creation of all moving pictures. The earliest scientific reels of physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey, captured by his own Chronophotographe camera, predate the first existing film by three years, and they sought to capture that very same thing as the pioneers of the camera obscura in 470 BCE, and the paintings of primitive cavemen before them: movement.
Marey’s reels are interspersed with the action of Holy Motors at several intervals, once providing a striking contrast to the art of motion capture, in a sequence (pictured top) where two figures in latex suits writhe and coil like mating dragons. So, is it Marey who provides the key to understanding the film’s events? In an entry to his Virtual Retractions series, David Phelps writes of Holy Motors that it portrays “the real physics beneath virtual reality.” This is the premise of Marey’s films twisted inside out, as he tried to take a new illusion and canvas it to capture an old, yet elusive truth – the way we move; interact; survive. But does this not suggest a more inquisitive aim for Carax’s film than many of Monsieur Oscar’s assignments ultimately realise?
While many have declared Holy Motors to be a love letter to cinema, it is more likely to be a love letter to the mechanics, appropriations and interpretations of cinema, if we think of cinema as an anatomical body. At its absolute purest, Carax’s film can be understood as a muscle, flexing and tensing according to his ideas and impulses. On my first viewing, Holy Motors appeared like a cerebral muscle, but in retrospect it feels more and more like a mushy, beating heart, a lament for love and for life and for cinema, which, finally, are all the same thing, and must all reach their natural end. The film even closes on a prayer from the outmoded, bulky limos which Carax uses as a metaphor for old film cameras (this is his first picture shot on digital). “Men don’t want visible machines any more“, one limo announces. “Amen“, they all chime.
The temptation, of course, with a film as rebellious and texturally layered as Holy Motors, is to approach it academically; to break each scene down to its rawest elements, explain what it is and why it is acting in such a way. While this is somewhat necessary, Holy Motors seems to benefit most, unlike its central protagonist(s), from a simple separation between mask and face, or, to speak in classical terms for a moment, form (mask) and content (face). In most films, the content is what is perceived to be of academic value, but the form of Holy Motors poses all of its most interesting questions. Here, substance lies on the surface, and what is often mocked by critics – a pure, visceral reaction to filmmaking – is built much deeper into the substructure of the film.
Look, for example, at the sequence in La Samaritaine, where Oscar walks with Eva Grace / Jean (Kylie Minogue). It is unclear whether she is just another appointment or a genuine face from Oscar’s past, but my interpretation is that the two know and have fond memories of each other, and this is a chance encounter. La Samaritaine was once a flag of prosperity and growth for Paris, but more importantly, it’s an old haunt for Carax – the now-decrepit shopping mall loomed large over 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, also starring Lavant (alongside Juliette Binoche, who was originally billed to play the Minogue part). This scene plays out like an extended memorial for one of the city’s grandest monuments, and isolated within it, a memorial for two lost souls who don’t even recognize each other behind all their makeup (“is that your hair?”). And even further back, a memorial for Alex and Michèle. Even if there is truth in this encounter, one wonders, did these two ever really know each other? As Minogue sings ‘Who Were We?‘ it becomes clear that the film’s central theme is, in fact, nostalgia, and that hanging over every frame has been the spectre of death (ironic, seeing as neither Oscar nor Eva Grace are mortal).
In Holy Motors we experience art motivated by life, life motivated by nostalgia, and nostalgia motivated by a fear of death. One question remains: are these lives really so separate? It seems clear that if each life depicted in the film is motivated by, or even exists because of nostalgia, then everything in the film can be understood by love. This concept provides a connective tissue which rejects the previous idea of vignettes. In which case, Holy Motors can act as both heart – represented here by an emotional arc which develops and can be followed throughout the film, like any standard narrative – and brain.
So. With the true face of Holy Motors established, we must now consider the true nature of its mask. The film’s closest cinematic relative is probably Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der spieler (1922). In his superlative Sight & Sound essay The Illusion Of Mastery, Thomas Elsaesser observes that ‘der spieler‘ means not only gambler, but also “the dissembler or pretender.” Mabuse was cinema’s first master of disguise, a criminal overlord who used deception and illusion to destabilize society, taking on thousands of faces which each allowed his master – Lang – to comment on that society. The same technical idea was true of the director’s 1919/20 mini-epic Die Spinnen, which Elsaesser describes in what could also pass as a microcosm of Holy Motors; “Such contrasting worlds comment on each other ironically, each pastiching the other by an act of repetition: the same stories, the same conflicts, the same futility, each time merely in a different fancy dress.” In Holy Motors, Oscar is der spieler, dissembling and reshaping reality as he sees fit, living over and again the same emotions in different lives (and genres – from revenge fantasy to musical and melodrama), pretending for the purpose of commentary.
Aside from the more obvious comparisons – consider that neither Mabuse nor Oscar can ever truly die – the most direct parallel between the films lies with Sandor Weltmann, a Mabuse mask evoked by the impish grotesque Merde (pictured above). Weltmann, a master of mass suggestion, plays agent provocateur to an audience of willing, passive subjects, who could just as easily be the audience from Holy Motors‘ prologue; those sitting unmoved, staring back at us, and presided over by Carax. In a clear homage to the reported fanfare of the Lumière’s L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (1895) debut, Lang has Weltmann stage an illusion for his audience. The curtains open to reveal a vast desert, and from this backdrop come travelers and their camels, wandering down centre stage (see video below) and into the audience. This scene makes a conscious statement on the way in which audiences will accept an illusion, so long as the reality it suggests is more exciting than the reality we exist in at the time of the illusion. To quote Elsaesser again, “sight is not only the sense most easily deceived, but also the one most easily seduced.”
It has happened for all time, and in all art. To backtrack, when Marey filmed his first subjects with the Chronophotographe, he did not really capture human movement. The shutter speed (1/1000 second) and primitive projection methods would have presented only an approximation of movement, accurate enough to seduce his scientific senses into an enraptured stupor, and one readily accepting of the fact that this was human movement. In actual fact it was just an exaggerated reflection. Both Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Holy Motors construct and participate in the disassembly of their consciously fake realities, using cinema to address society and make either political or cultural comment. Both films present illusions within illusions, films within films, “metaphor as mimicry, mimicry as metaphor” (Elsaesser).
Holy Motors is a film about a lot of things, but principally it is about nostalgia and fakery, one an act of the heart, and the other of the brain; though, like the form and content of anatomical cinema, the two are intrinsically linked. Nostalgia is the past distorted by emotion; an illusion of what was once reality. It is a process of self-deception and – yes – fakery. What binds them together in Holy Motors is Carax, who acts not as the film’s final author, but the mediator of its disparate, independently resourced elements. Now – hearts, brains and mediators. Which other Fritz Lang epic does that recall?