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Hail Holy Motors   

A Spontaneous LOLA collective

Part Two:
Dana Linssen – Miguel Marías – Stephanie Van Schilt –
Anna Dzenis – Deane Williams – Claire Perkins – Julie Banks – Lauren Bliss – Covadonga G. Lahera – Judith Revault D'Allonnes




What is a mask? I do not know. I am walking down the Viennese streets, observing the faces of the passers-by trying to find an answer in their gaze. They stare back.


In my mind’s eye their looks turn into the expressionless mask worn by Édith Scob in Holy Motors and worn by her before, in her breakthrough role in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960). A mask to conceal and camouflage. To protect. To draw a porcelain veil between her guise and the world’s.


Of course, the mask in Holy Motors is a direct reference to that poetic horror film, although we have to reconsider the meaning of the horror. As it is not the horror of the shock and the gore and the mad scientist using his scalpel. They are already minimised by its equally terrifying, lyrical, dreamlike style. And it’s not the horror of the thought that someone could love someone else so much that they are prepared to cross the line between the ‘sane’ and the ‘in’, and dive deep into in-sanity. But it is alarming enough. And is it really the horror of love? Isn’t it the horror of shame and disgust and guilt and the sense of inadequacy that we are never to restore what is lost? And loved.


I slip over an empty cookie wrapping. ‘Gefüllte Herze’, it says. ‘Filled hearts’. And, as always, my lazy eye enjoys itself in a misreading: ‘Gefühlte Herze’. ‘Felt hearts’. I guess that works, too.


The mask in Holy Motors has become the face of the film. It is seen on posters and production stills, it slowly slides over the nine lives and the eleven faces of its protagonist and hero and the transforming wizardry of actor Denis Lavant who is embodying them all. Holy Motors can be seen as a film about that. About acting and role-playing and the many faces we wear in our daily lives and how these masquerades direct our actions. How we are all fathers and bankers and killers and dying and begging to get our alms out of life.


It is perhaps about incompetence, too, about the inability that – amongst all these parts we perform in order to survive in a society that is not so civilised but only cultivated by its rules – we are never to be ourselves. And how sometimes we would rather hide behind a façade. But who are we? And from whom are we hiding? Hence the quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘Everything and Nothing’ in the booklet accompanying the film imagining a conversation between the playwright William Shakespeare and God: ‘History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: “I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself”’.


And why not call these roles, these characters, these personae the dramaturgy of the everyday, as we are constantly making up stories in the futile hope that they will make sense of the incidents that befall us? And the interventions that we, just like Lavant’s Mr Oscar, are conducted to perform in other people’s lives. And perhaps all these tell-tales are not so useless, as we are enjoying these make-up lives too with a deep, sardonic pleasure. And Holy Motors is also a nod to that.


A persona is, in our everyday usage of the word, the social role played by an actor. But aren’t we all merely players and all the world a stage? More interesting in this context is the fact that the word persona stems from the Latin where it originally referred to the theatrical mask. The origins of the word mask are less clearly defined. They may be found in the medieval Latin ‘masca’ that referred to ‘spectre’ or ‘nightmare’, but the word may also be older and come from the Arabic ‘maskhara’ that means ‘to ridicule’. And there are other sources. And older ones. And the mask itself, of course, is even older than all that. It is found in the ancient Greek theatre where actors wore oversized god masks to beseech the power of these gods, and the life forces and sources they were playing with, and we find it in the ritual context of non-western cultures where the mask performed an even more magical role. It can be traced back to the first human being that hid his head behind his hand and peeked through his fingers to see if the world was still there.


So we’re wearing masks anyway. Whether we are wearing them or not.


Our inborn expressions such as joy or fear or amazement are our first masks. We use them to communicate. They have to be identifiable.


They are like interfaces, a term I borrow from computing to describe the interaction between the components that work in a given system.


Despite its plea for the analogue, Holy Motors is also a digital film in the way it uses discontinuous structures, such as the different incarnations of the shape shifting Mr Oscar, as a metaphor for life. There is an indefinable sense that all these discrete events may or may not be connected or orchestrated by the mysterious Man with the Port-Wine Stain. But are they? Or is he just watching and, like any film spectator, trying to reconstruct a story? So maybe we should say that Holy Motors is resisting this atomic concept of discontinuity. As, in the end, the film is both. Both an exploration of continuity and of disconnection. That, of course, aligns with the greater concept behind the film, that it is a mourning song for the loss of Carax’s partner, Katerina Golubeva. As where else are these matters of the chain of events (as life is often called) and its sudden halt better understood than in the face of death?


Is the film a death mask?


The white stretch limos, the vehicles of our sublunary endeavours, are the horseless carriages of the holy motors that keep our dreams going.


‘My girl, my girl, where will you go? I’m going where the cold wind blows.’


The mask as an interface thus establishes, ignites, the interaction between the self and the world.


And, at the end of the day, when Scob’s Céline puts on her mask, it is not to obscure herself, but to show us her real face. The Bressonian real, the projection of the simulacra of emotions. The blank mirror that stares back. And all we see are eyes. Without a face. Heart-felt.


Dana Linssen


Death Vessels in the Dark

So far, I have experienced Holy Motors three times – the first time at Locarno, the other two at home in Madrid – and, on each occasion, it has seemed to me a different film (which is, of course, one of the reasons why I like it very much). The first time (it was summer) I saw it as a descendant of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’or (1930), despite the more blatant quotations from Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage; and therefore I found it rather joyously surrealistic, also a bit crazy and funny like Pierre Prévert’s L’Affaire est dans le sac (1932); and somewhat akin, in its episodic structure, to a program of Charlie Chaplin’s early, more anarchic shorts. Along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), I think of these shorts as the prime source for the behaviour, gestures, movements and general appearance of Monsieur Merde’s ancestor, Opale (i.e., Mr Hyde), as embodied by Jean-Louis Barrault in Jean Renoir’s Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959).

But afterwards, in autumn or the early days of winter, back home, the film’s initial joyfulness had fallen to a second level, replaced in the foreground by a pervasive and persistent sadness and melancholy, a sort of longing and nostalgia for things and people now vanished. After all, it is a movie dealing mainly with death and, therefore, like every other Carax film so far (and, more guardedly, like most Nouvelle Vague films), in the tradition of and under the protective cloak and candle lights of Jean Cocteau. I’m thinking not only of the obvious, direct references — Le Sang d’un poète (1930), Orphée (1950) and Le Testament d’Orphée (1960) — but also the undercover ones, La Belle et la Bête (1946), L’Aigle à deux têtes (1947), Les Parents terribles (1948) and even (although entrusted by Cocteau to Jean-Pierre Melville and Franju, respectively) Les Enfants terribles (1950) and Thomas l’imposteur (1965).

That Cocteau is not mentioned in the end credits of Holy Motors (which thank Henry James and Franju instead) may be either because Cocteau is not at all fashionable nowadays, or rather (I hope) because Carax sees his indebtedness to Cocteau as so self-evident that he feels no need to state it. In any case, you may observe that all the milestones I have mentioned are either from the 1928-1935 period (which marks the end of silent films and the first years of sound films in France) — you may also think, while watching Holy Motors, of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934), and of Renoir’s La Petite Marchande d’allumettes (1928), La Chienne (1931), Boudu sauvé des eaux and La Nuit du Carrefour (1932), Toni (1934) or Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) — or from the years 1958-60, the starting point of the Nouvelle Vague. Both were moments of intense innovative creativity, which is precisely not the dominant climate or spirit in 2012.

How does a filmmaker pass most of the time not making films, not filming? If he is not too embittered, he watches (or re-watches) movies and thinks about them. That does not turn him into a film historian, but drives him to watch films historically – and eventually to make them by linking himself to one or many traditions in the years before and after he started to make films.

There are echoes of Louis Feuillade and Léonce Perret in Leos Carax as much as of Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Eustache or Philippe Garrel. In addition to the filmmakers I have already mentioned, there may also be, perhaps more deeply buried, such figures as Alain Resnais, Jacques Tati, Jacques Becker, Jean Grémillon, François Truffaut and Maurice Pialat.

Somehow, the large windows of the very long white limousines seem to become screens on which, with the help of music, we can dream new movies.


Miguel Marías


The Beauty of the Act


While re-watching the trailer for Holy Motors, it froze on Lavant, hunched behind a mirror, at the back of a limousine. Sitting, bald and shirtless, he is crowded by indistinct detritus. The still, dark shot is lit only by the mirror’s globes and the neon green that aches from the world outside. A single, static subtitle reads, ‘The beauty of the act’ (la beauté du geste). Here, the sense of story lingers: both menacing and enticing, it is felt, not yet understood.


This is the first time I have ever been grateful for my shoddy Internet connection. In this instance, it fortuitously provided me with a crystalline moment that I would have otherwise struggled to select. Not because such moments are hard to come by in Holy Motors; rather, because there are so many.


Holy Motors is a rich bounty for the mind and an adventure for the heart. Directing attention solely to the astonishing performances or the chaotic narrative structure would be at once too expansive and too limiting. To concentrate on one specific element – the masterful music, heightened colour, indirect tone or formal successes – is a recipe for a thesis. A fluid and inspired creature, Holy Motors will be many things to many people; for me, it is largely a feeling that is perfectly encapsulated by this frozen moment of screen time.


Upon viewing Holy Motors, a particular sensation nestled itself somewhere in my chest, while sparkling in my wide eyes. Still now, upon reflection, I can feel the same mixture of joyful anticipation, respectful intrigue and immense wonder. During the film each incident, pouring forth in a deliberate ode to imagination, inscribed an infectious awe that wholly, loudly and defiantly lauded the ‘beauty of the act’. Smitten by its splendour, I was and remain utterly enamoured with Holy Motors, a film that, in and of itself, is enamoured with artistic expression.


The true beauty of Holy Motors lies in its ability to incite such an emotional reaction at the time of viewing and for long after the event, even when the moving images are spliced and still. Holy Motors was a swoon-inducing fiction feast; while I watched it with clasped hands and moon-eyes, it was not a purely sterile, clean romance – a truth that only added to its potency.


The path that Holy Motors led me down was often murky, rough, violent and puzzling. But I never felt lost because, while at times disorienting, it never became obtuse. The combination of an innocent, childlike sense of imagination with elements of grand myth and art, reappropriated into a fanciful, curious world, is truly a spectacle to behold. As a love letter to cinema, Holy Motors seemed personal in its celebration of story, music and performance; in essence, it was a movie-length rumination on the beauty of the act. I felt it each step of the way.


Stephanie Van Schilt


A Couple of Images


There’s never any initial idea or intention behind a film, but rather a couple of images and feelings that I splice together. (Carax, Holy Motors press kit)


What interests me is the sense, as you say, that ‘film is nothing but photography’; I think that is a contradictory and even a false way of looking at cinema, but I keep seeing it that way somehow. (Jeff Wall, The Crooked Path)


In several interviews, Carax describes how his films almost always begin with images, rather than with a carefully planned and structured narrative. Eva Mendes provides further evidence of the central place of the image in Carax’s films when she explains (in Huffington Post) that the original script for Holy Motors was ‘formatted as descriptions of scenes with a lot of photography around the descriptions’. While Holy Motors is a mercurial exploration of performance and the transforming performing body, there are several scenes that feature the making of images, thus inviting us to also consider the many permutations and possibilities of the photographic/cinematic image.


In Mr Oscar’s third assignment, he changes out of a motion capture outfit and transforms into the sewer-living, Id-like figure of Merde – a character who first appeared in Carax’s short in the portmanteau film Tokyo! (2008). Merde is a beast from the underworld, a troll-like leprechaun with wild, red hair, a blind eye, unkempt long fingernails and toenails, dressed in a green jacket and pants with no shirt and bare feet.


This assignment takes place in two locations, which can also be described as two different spheres of image-making: one is above ground in Père Lachaise Cemetery; the other is subterranean, in the sewer. This is a Beauty-and-the-Beast story in which Merde kidnaps the supermodel (Mendes) and carries her to his underground lair, recalling films such as Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Cooper-Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933). But there is something else going on here. Carax is staging and restaging images. He is transforming locations into settings in which to stage a photograph or a tableau vivant. It is through such stagings that Carax invites us to reflect on the nature, meaning and possibilities of images, both alone and as part of a cinematic flow.


In Père Lachaise, Merde crazily races around with no respect to the sacred nature of the location or its visitors. He tramples the crucifixes covering graves, grabbing flowers and wreaths (eating them as he goes), and even knocks down a blind man. This anarchic behaviour leads him to a fashion photo shoot where Harry T. Bone (Geoffrey Carey), a particularly uncool photographer wearing white shorts and white ankle socks, is shooting Kay M – a reference to Kate Moss, with whom Carax had planned a feature project condensed in this vignette. Kay is standing still and silent, like a statue or goddess, draped in gold silk and positioned against the backdrop of gravestones. Harry uses a modern Canon 5D digital camera as he manically snaps away at a speed matching Merde’s erratic walk. Amidst the rapid succession of flashes, and transfixed by her vision and presence, Harry utters the word ‘beauty’ over and over again. 


Merde disrupts the photo shoot, pushing spectators aside so he can stand in front and watch. The photographer is immediately drawn to Merde’s strangeness, and swaps his chanting of ‘beauty’ for the words ‘weird … so weird’. Harry asks his assistant for his older Hasselblad film camera – a camera for artistic photographs rather than compromised commercial fashion work – and starts shooting this strange creature. Again, he repeatedly fires the shutter, manically, as if he does not really see what is in front of his camera – before requesting his assistant Jamie (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) to invite Merde to be photographed with Kay. Jamie cautiously approaches and asks Merde if he knows Diane Arbus – a photographer who, she says, photographed ‘dwarves, giants and monsters’ – inviting him to stand alongside the model, to incarnate an image of Beauty and the Beast. Instead of accepting this offer, Merde bites the assistant’s fingers off, wipes the blood on Kay and then kidnaps her – carrying her over his shoulder back down into the underground sewer. She is compliant, simply allowing him to do this, while Harry and his other assistant follow, in pursuit of yet another image.


This scene evokes memories of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), where Thomas (David Hemmings), an incarnation of the 1960s fashion photographer David Bailey, is contemptuous of the world of commercial photography, particularly his lifeless (still) and mute (silent) models. However, Thomas has aspirations to be a ‘serious’ photographer, and one of the ways he seeks out ‘artistic images’ is to dress up as a homeless man to gain entry into a dosshouse, where he secretly photographs less-fortunate men. These documentary photographs (obtained through duplicitous means) of marginalised people constitute what he believes is the real subject of photography. However, these ideas become destabilised when an innocent photograph, taken in a tranquil park, turns out to be a photograph of a murder. Suddenly, the statement that Thomas thought the photograph conveyed becomes a question.


In a similar way, Harry turns his attention from commercial work to a more artistic approach to image-making. This, too, is replayed in the shift between using a digital camera (for the fashion shoot) to using a medium-format film camera for the ‘artistic’ work that is (again) a photograph of a weird-looking Arbus-style subject. It is interesting to note that Arbus herself was a fashion photographer before she chose a medium-format camera to photograph those categorised by society as freaks. Yet, while Harry is a comic version of Thomas, what he shares with his source: a first moment where he controls what is in front of his camera; a second moment where he simply responds to the chance encounters that are in front of him; and a third moment where he loses all control, the image worlds he has staged simply disappearing.


From William Todd Schultz’s 2011 book An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus: ‘Arbus kept dipping into her subjective well, the hole in the ground where secrets lived, then transposing what she saw there into images’ (p. 205). In Holy Motors, this subjective well takes the literal form of a descent into an underground sewer. And it is in this place that Merde, as the subject of the Arbus-style image, becomes an artist, an image-maker in his own right.


Once Merde has removed the beautiful Kay from her elevated, statuesque position and taken her down into the depths of his underground sewer, he begins to dethrone her. First he removes her material possessions, her bag and its contents, smokes her cigarettes, eats her money and even her hair. He then undresses and redresses her in a burka shaped from her gold silk dress, not only concealing her beauty, but also remaking her as an Islamic woman – i.e., someone with very different beliefs, religion and iconographic lineage to those we encountered in the cemetery above.


It is also here that Merde stages his own mise en abyme, his tableau vivant that suggestively recalls the surreal and romantic photographs of Joel Peter Witkin and E.J. Bellocq, while echoing the look and feel of history paintings with their chiaroscuro lighting illuminating figures in a dark, green-gold alcove. Merde’s tableau vivant is also a deconstruction of classic Pietàs of the Virgin Mary and the dying Jesus. He is naked with an erect penis, showered with stolen rose petals from the cemetery above, and lying across the lap of Kay remade as an Islamic woman.


In this sequence, there is a topographical shift from the above-ground cemetery fashion shoot to the lower depths of a green-shaded enclave. But Carax is also tracing an eclectic history of the image, from contemporary digital photography, through analogue image-making, to an extended history of painting and the traditions of the tableau vivant. As we observe the various stagings and remakings of figures, settings, compositions and iconography, Carax is also asking us to look closely and question what is at the very heart of an image.


Anna Dzenis


The Time is Out of Joint!


Towards the end of Holy Motors, Monsieur Oscar meets fellow role player Eva Grace/Jean (Kylie Minogue) at the derelict La Samaritaine department store in Paris. Eva moves into a chanson performance of ‘Who Were We?’ à la Scott Walker. Prefigured by Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ in an earlier party scene, Eva’s hymn to lost time – and Minogue’s much anticipated appearance – could function as an embodiment of the various episodes that precede it. However, Eva’s performance only further inculcates the film’s nostalgia for a cinema pure and true, of the past and the future.


As the scene draws to a close, Jean climbs upon a ledge on the roof of the store, facing the camera as her lover scrambles up the building’s staircase to meet her. As Oscar departs the building, he passes Eva and her lover suicided on the beginnings of the Pont Neuf, as he moves on to his next role.


Deane Williams


She Was an Angel I Needed


Holy Motors is rife with dream logic. In its opening sequence, a pajama-clad Carax plants himself in his own film, entering it through a wall papered over with imagery of a forest, and happens upon a cinema full of inanimate people, dead or asleep. The episodic structure is also palpably dreamlike, in its transmission of Lavant through eleven adjacent characters whose connections are not internal (organically serial) but external – linked portmanteau-style by indomitable themes. For me, however – importantly, an Australian – the most dream-like event in this grand assemblage is the eruption of Kylie Minogue in a late sequence, where she appears as Monsieur Oscar’s lost lover. Eruption is the wrong word, in the sense that Minogue’s appearance was much touted before the film’s release, so hardly a surprise. It worked instead like a foretold scene of extreme violence: an event that shot my viewing through with anticipation, as I waited (with some impatience) to see if each episode would contain it. When it did appear it ruptured the film for me, in the way an overly familiar and ordinary figure or situation in a dream can. In a very exact manner, it mirrored the shock I felt when – in turn – Marcus Graham and Melissa George appeared in David Lynch’s exotic Mulholland Dr. (2001).


In this case, however, I was shocked by the meekness of Minogue in Carax’s exuberant work. It is tempting to read this as a ‘bad’ performance – with all the discursive power that this term implies. With her thin, hesitant French – overly plagued by her Australian accent – her understated makeup and gentle, diluted singing, she renders the sequence an oddly subdued moment.  Like everything else in Holy Motors, Minogue’s appearance is crammed with intertexts – the Jean Seberg hair, the noir-ish trenchcoat – but these effects are sidelined by the atmospheric shift that she triggers. Carax’s previous films have all been built around an outlaw romance or infatuation that structures the characters and their experience of the world. In his latest work, the relationship is (explicitly) confined to one episode, and feels drained of intensity – Minogue’s character is the polar opposite of the towering, strident embodiment of Beauty presented by Eva Mendes in an earlier, astonishing sequence. As the only tangible aspect of Oscar’s backstory that is seen, Minogue forms a site of halted stillness within the movement and chaos: in a direct and mysterious challenge to the popular claim that this film makes all other cinema today feel very ‘buttoned down’, she is overly – and literally – ‘buttoned up’. 


Claire Perkins


Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)


When Raymond Bellour recently described (in ‘The Cinema Spectator: A Special Memory’) the ‘subtle commotions, suspensions, interruptions, associations, recalls and returns’ that demand the spectator’s attention, he could be speaking about Holy Motors. I am transfixed by it, captured and consumed by its movements and rhythms, the connections and dislocations between each sequence, the sudden startling eruptions and erections, rememberings, drifts and displacements. Its circuits extend and transform through the film and beyond it, through cinema and the rhythm of emotion. For all its reflection on the ‘death of cinema’ in the digital age, Holy Motors is a celebration of cinema, of life and love – and their joyous, painful, all-consuming and inescapable coming together.


Cinema erupts from the limousine as Lavant as Monsieur Oscar leaps out to kill The Banker, played by Lavant in a reprise of the character from the beginning. It traces a circuit in the repeated images from Étienne-Jules Marey’s motion studies. The image and its malleability is in-your-face in the sequences of high-intensity colouring and treatment that expel and (paradoxically) underscore the intimacy of the image in the rest of the work (shot digitally by Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape). Through fluidity of form, the cinema is in the moment, on the screen and everywhere. It is here and now and it reaches out. When Mendes is snatched from the podium by Merde, she transforms from the unattainable figure of Beauty that is Kay M – via Fay Wray, with Christine Gordon in I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – and into the static, marble form of Michelangelo’s Pietà. More than remembering, this sequence is a provocation. It is a question about beauty, sexuality and the body evacuated of desire by desire. It is a question that extends through forms, answered in the eye of the beholder.


In a bounteous inversion, it is in the interval – that classic moment of interruption – that Carax most obviously shows what film can do: demanding attention and participation, insisting we become and are part of the momentum. Just as the band of players are drawn toward and follow the accordion-playing Lavant/Pied Piper, their numbers growing into an exuberant mass, I feel with and through the movements and rhythms of Holy Motors. Here, music is truly the ‘tonal analogue of emotive life’ (Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form). And it is this sense of musicality throughout that is breathtaking about Holy Motors. Tracing the forms of emotion, it is the intensity and pitch of love in all its glorious, drawn out and devastating dynamics. The acrobatics of the stop-motion sequence are the adrenalin, flush, lightness and fevered pulse of new love and lust. The poignant intimacy, loneliness and disappointment of love is there in the tight framing of the father and daughter set into the secondary frame of the car. The in-between and nowhere that is adolescence emerges in the increasing tension of this framing, constraining the awkward gestures of Angèle (Jeanne Disson) as she bites into the éclair, her mouth smeared with its stickiness. Minogue’s stifled facial and bodily gestures, as she moves through the equally wrecked expanse of Samaritaine, effect the hollow absence of loss. And it is succinctly summed up in words by Lavant as the dying old man: ‘Life is better … for in life there is love. Death is good, but there’s no love’.


Holy Motors feels like gift, a gift of and to cinema. It is a gift of love and life through ‘the beauty of the act’.  In death there is no love and no cinema. Life is definitely better.


Julie Banks


A Prayer for Daughters


Womankind – the everlasting irony in the life of the community. (Hegel)


If Holy Motors is a science fiction poem for the cinema that tries to reveal falsity through death, the daughters compose the alien bodies that haunt its counterfeited future and undo its nihilism. First, there is the scene in the car with the daughter Angèle, who tears the screen in two with her striking resemblance to Lavant. Until corrected, I was convinced that she was Lavant’s real daughter. Nonetheless, the power of this scene ripples throughout the film. Even if it is later reflected, however absurdly, in the image of Mr Oscar with a family of chimps, its doubled irony – much as it works in the first four films of the great classic Planet of the Apes series (1968-72) – reveals how the cinema can, in the figurative sense, concretely anchor itself.


Things are there, but only cinema can see them for what they are. In other words, it measures itself to their unstable, disorderly, relative, and unintelligible nature. Real presence requires shifting toward the figurative; the phenomenon – a face, a river, a speed – must be recovered from the perspective of its strangeness. And this strangeness does not refer to a mystery, to something dark and shameful  [...] but to an essential alteration, to the profoundly unidentifiable and impure dimension of things that cinema detects, welcomes, and develops. Strangeness does not stem from an enigmatic lining of the real but from an ‘excess of obvious facts’. (Nicole Brenez in Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, p. 236)


Angèle is full of awkward grace, overshadowed by Lavant who, in this scene, is condensed into a figure of patriarchal violence. He avoids the rupture by blasting his car stereo either side of the phantasmatic sequence in which she appears. Her immanence, constituted by the tears that fall onto her lap, manifests an image of young girls that rarely comes to light on the screen; the strangulated typography of the youthful girl almost always blacks out the intimidating naivety of the faces. Their conversation is the most bizarre in the film, but also the most moving. Her nonsensical storytelling is full of gentle lies, ones we might expect from a child, which are beaten into submission by Lavant. He tortures her and makes her admit to the reality of her actions – right after shoving a cream cake in her mouth. Yet, somewhere within this torture, love bursts out onto the screen: ‘I think the relationship between father and daughter is the most beautiful possible relationship but also the closest to all the horror tales, I mean the father can be a monster very easily’ (Carax).


Second, there is Kylie Minogue, popular culture’s antipodal daughter. First, she played a mechanic, wedding Jason Donovan in Neighbours; then – in between coupling with Nick Cave (in voice) and Michael Hutchence (in body) – produced sickly, saturated music that disturbs bodies and minds. Now, she pretends that she can speak French and wanders with glazed eyes through an abandoned department store. She is tacky, absurd, celebrated for her excess – while still wholly within mainstream culture. In Holy Motors, she is condensed into a homage to Jean Seberg. But her lies are not a tragedy, even though she becomes entangled with suicide; they are a celebration of the lunacy of the cinema as a medium that can transport a creature such as Minogue – who found fame as a singer performing at a Fitzroy Lions Football Club charity concert – into a reflection of avant-garde French culture. ‘Kylie is purity itself’ (Carax).


Third is the chauffeur – Édith Scob of Les yeux sans visage – who ferries Lavant around in a limousine from scene to scene. Just as Angèle manages to reduce her father to nothingness (even if she herself does not know it), Scob – daughter of the cinema – paradoxically brings him back into his originary force. The horror of a face and body cut up and transported from one mutilated scene to the next is not a continuous revelation but, rather, a point of fixity. Characters may keep dying in Holy Motors, but the daughters keep their father in check.


Lauren Bliss


Who We Were When We Were


Clearly, we are many. And there comes the day – more than once – when we ask ourselves who the hell we are … or were, if our biological end is near. In a naïve, last-minute effort to bring some order to the question of one’s own existence – or simply from the desire to play one last game – and assuming the impossibility of victory, you end up half-way or lost, having to accept your own confusion and hence the irremediable disorder of all things. Or the disorder, and hence the confusion. But, despite it all, we keep playing.


At the very beginning of Holy Motors, I thought I was watching a reversal of the start of Fellini’s (1963); I was inside something of that sort, some other consciousness in full, retrospective flight. But I wasn’t just identifying with this clone caught in a subjective traffic jam; I also recalled a mixture of Zelig (1983), a few Bergmans, and Les yeux sans visage. But nothing indicates that it wasn’t all a dream. Or just a mistake.


So, an overload of multiple identities begins to take shape, on the screen and in the stalls: this man, Oscar/Lavant, is a veteran actor (as much in the film as in real life), for some virtually a family member, whose job is to don a costume maybe eleven times (or more) a day. And in each of these roles, he leaves behind a piece of his own life – as well as, in the most demanding instance, his entire reserve of energy. He almost always goes right to the edge of an abyss, but can save himself because he is a great actor, and because he has a magnificent chauffeur (Scob, another screen veteran), a rigid schedule, and an enviable wardrobe of clothes and accessories in the back of the limousine. The ‘wings’ of the stage are located inside the car, and from there they can emerge into anywhere in the world: the door opens, like a backdrop rising. At times, exhausted, the actor longs for the death of all his roles. For Death itself.


There is also a woman who was never meant to be (Kylie); the return of a previous character who embodies the cry of ‘merde!’; and an erection that falls asleep. But, in reality, none of this ever existed; likewise, we can categorise as lies the deceitful daughter, the politician’s murder, the beggar, the prehistoric green man, the Motion Capture, and that simulated-run on a gym treadmill (what could Muybridge have done with that?) – during which Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ might have played. And all the phony tears – especially the tears. But we keep buying tickets, requesting critics’ accreditations, looking out for download windows, and hitting ‘play’. We exit the cinema inside the cinema, then we go to the cinema outside that cinema – and then, stripped naked like a newborn babe, we decide to return to the limousine.


And suddenly, yes, after so long sleeping behind us, he finally wakes up: the consumptive, pajama-wearing Mr Carax himself, caught between four walls, and willing to break through one of them. Free of his bedroom-tomb, Carax confronts us with ourselves: one audience views another. Perhaps only at this moment is the image disturbing; or perhaps it is the only image that has ever existed, containing all the others. Spectators before spectators, receiving the ultimate visitation, taking the final bullet with our name on it. Once upon a time, that was sad Alex and his ‘bad blood’. And now, so many years on, this crazy director returns, almost from the dead, to invoke, through cinema, his own resurrection: representing a final, vehement performance, reappropriating, once again, that body named Denis Lavant, invading it for the fifth time – a multiple invasion with multiple masks and multiple locations, far deeper than ever before.


For the first time in Carax’s cinema, Lavant is named not Alex but Oscar (the director’s birth name is Alexandre Oscar Dupont), and the director who already mixed up the letters of his old name now renews himself with a second name, and this old anatomical extension of the ‘new wave’, this old ghost, intermittent enfant terrible, again twisting and cross-dressing in order to celebrate, open-mouthed, a brave, resounding, ironic laugh which gathers all the lived stories, and the stories that could not be lived, the stories that were told, and those that remain to be told; and an autonomy proud of its hubris and of its very own, immense actor – both of them willing to die with each new lie. When backlit, a limousine may seem like a hearse. And vice versa.


Covadonga G. Lahera


(translated from the Spanish by Adrian Martin.
Originally appeared in Transit, October 2012)


The Individual of the Spectacle


But to whom is the spectacle played by Mr Oscar – in his nine, ten or eleven successive roles – destined? To the spectators of Holy Motors who we are, certainly; to those who double us in the theatre Carax slips into at the very beginning of the film, probably; to the filmmaker who imagined and directed them, naturally.


The closure of the film on itself – its serial performances could nourish the machinery ad vitam aeternam without any external witness needed – indicates, however, other recipients. We are invited into a single day of Mr Oscar’s life, whose schedule has been (and will be) very tight – this much we are told. Serving a ‘central command’ about whom we will learn nothing, except that he needs to alert it in case of delay, Mr Oscar keeps going through his metamorphosis, following a busy plan: he has appointments, he works at appearing and performing, in a few minutes, what is expected of him.


What is he working at exactly, and what for? In turn, a banker, a Russian beggar, a Motion Capture Operator Suit, an animalistic wastrel arisen from the sewer, a widower-father of a young teenage girl, an accordionist, a murderer and his victim, a dying old man, a humble family guy: Mr Oscar is the labourer of a spectacle, erected as a system. Although the spectacle is dressed up in the rags of cinematic or theatrical genres – documentary, erotic fantasy, monster film, Asian-style gangster film, Chekhovian drama, where the underlying phantasy could crack their seams – this spectacle is, above all, the spectacle of our lives, the spectacle we have inherited, the one we reproduce eternally. Mr Oscar’s performances maintain this spectacle-world; they keep it running, but not so much for us, the spectators, as for those who take part in it. Mr Oscar fits in like the missing piece within contexts that, without him, would not reach their fulfillment, in scenes that his crucial intervention brings to a lyrical or destructive paroxysm: that constitutes their price, and their beauty.


The rubbernecks gathered watching a fashion photo-shoot, jolted, frightened, hurt by Mr Merde, are experiencing an electroshock; the photographer, and the model he kidnaps, even more so. The teenager whom he, as a merciless father, leaves alone – after telling her the sole punishment for her little lie will be to go on living as herself – is doubtless shaken, scarred for life. The film’s loop upon itself tightens in the sequence where Mr Oscar, as an old man, exhales his last breath, awakened by a loving and tearful niece. Once death has come, after a few seconds, he gently gets free of the young woman’s embrace, excusing himself. Before hastening to his next appointment, he thanks her for the intensity of the moment they have shared, telling her he hopes they will see each other again, and asking for her name. Just like Mr Oscar she, too, is an actress, a labourer of the spectacle. She, too, performed this scene. Although it was only intended for them  – unless it was designed for the dog, their sole witness.


Between each role, Mr Oscar dresses up, eats and rests in a big white limousine, his backstage – driven by a beautiful, aged lady who is discreetly but entirely devoted to him, his assistant and guide. We might believe that we find here the rare interludes when Mr Oscar is himself – until the Samaritaine sequence comes to disturb the system. Accidentally crossing the path of a woman he once loved with all his soul – now made-up like him, ready to go on with her next role like him – Mr Oscar follows her, longing to catch up, in their twenty minute break, with the twenty years that have separated them. The scene, with its love-and-death song echoing in a derelict Samaritaine, is more heartbreaking than the musicals it replays, here bared and condensed in a unique, sublime salute. We had left the spectacle-world, and yet it is back, more moving than it ever was. As Mr Oscar passes, screaming, the corpse of his beloved – crashed to earth for the part she came to play, a flight attendant who commits suicide out of love, throwing herself off the Samaritaine roof  (her ‘last flight’, since this film is full of such black, withering humor) – we definitely lose the lines that have distinguished on- and off-stage.


Exhausted, devastated, Mr Oscar transforms, one last time, for his final role of the day. The song by Gérard Manset, ‘Revivre’, accompanying this ultimate performance, offers itself as a parable of the entire film: living again, beginning again, is to perform again. Mr Oscar gathers his wavering strength to embody a humble family man coming back home at night – in fact, to join a female monkey and her children. Ultimately, the spectacle was intended only for himself. A spectacle that alienates him, but is alone able to transfigure his world, to give it a few instants of insane intensity, a few sparkles of furious beauty. A spectacle where performing and coming (alive) are the very same thing.


Judith Revault d’Allonnes


(translated from the French by the author and Adrian Martin)


Part One of Hail Holy Motors can be read here.


from Issue 3: Masks


© Individual contributors September–December 2012;
LOLA for the translations and the complete assemblage December 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.