Holy Motors: Part I – a movie review

Holy Motors – Part I: a movie review


Howard Adelman

WARNING: This review consists of recounting images that may spoil the movie for you.

For a film that is so full of cinematic precedents, this 2012 movie that I saw on Netflix is unprecedented and unclassifiable. Horror, comedy, sentimental, social commentary, drama, romance, gangland, aesthetic – one can go on and on. It is truly a movie about Holy Rollers – oh, I meant to type Holy Motors, or did I? For what is obsolete is preserved, raised up and put away (aufgehobt, from the verb aufgehoben) and placed on sacred mount. The stretch limousines in Holy Motors are put to sleep for the night in the Holy Motors garage for limousines just after they have a conversation about their obsolescence and even extinction. The film is about one day and evening in the life of one specific stretch limousine with one specific chauffeur and one actor.

A stretch limousine is used as a hearse to carry bodies to the cemetery or crematorium and to transport the family of the deceased to the side of the grave. So it is a vehicle closely associated with death. But it is also the transportation of choice for the super-rich and those with high status – movie stars. Look at the use of the stretch limo in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis where the hyper-kinetic life of the wealthy fantasy makers of Wall Street reveals itself to be the flip side of the coin where that life is associated with mortality, with what is well past its due date.

Literally, a stretch limousine is a holy roller, not a sacred holy of holies with a fixed place marking the centre of the civilized universe, but a vehicle in constant movement from the early morning hours to late in the evening. While we are awake, we are in the realm of movement, of activity, of a divine presence that reeks of both elegance and mystery. For the windows are always tinted, enabling those inside to see out, but not the reverse. The inner sanctum is a place of power and status. When a couple on their first prom date or a couple just married emerge from a stretch limo, they descend from the realm of romance to everyday life. Stretch limos smell of wealth, of luxury, of ostentation, of power. The chauffeur, the bondsman in the symbiotic relation, is in a separate compartment from the master. However, in the stretch limo in Holy Motors, it is the chauffeur who gives the passenger his assignments and keeps him on schedule.

Holy Motors came out in 2012, the same year as Cosmopolis, so the two films could not have influenced one another. While the stretch limo is a central feature in both movies, each film uses the vehicle in opposite ways. In Cosmopolis, various individuals throughout the film enter the vehicle. In Holy Motors, one individual emerges from the vehicle in various guises. Cosmopolis is about that power and wealth and control that the limo symbolizes. Holy Motors is about a wide variety of challenges to this worship of power through letting the imagination run wild in a variety of different creations. In Cosmopolis, the hero/villain is out to command the future as well as everything current. Holy Motors is about the past, for the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk. In Holy Motors, the main protagonist engages in a dance of death as he gradually exhausts himself in an array of shape shifting forms. Cosmopolis is about unmasking the metaphysical foundations of the Great Crash of 2008; Holy Motors is about what it means to don a mask.

If Cosmopolis is about an individual’s quest for power, the scenes in Holy Motors are themselves almost always very powerful as each in turn drains the energy of the protagonist. I awoke this morning with one image after the other battling each another for attention inside my head and not just from the movie. For a film about precedents, the director insisted that he didn’t “see it as a film about references.” And, of course, it isn’t. For although packed with reverberations of cinematic memories, that is NOT what the film is about. So rather than hunt down the sources for the myriad number of images, I will only refer to some when they throw light on the meaning of an episode and I cannot get the associated image out of my mind anymore than the original from this movie.

film begins, according to many reviewers, when a very well-dressed older gentleman comes out of his mansion, says goodbye to his young daughter and, instead of entering the black SUV parked in his circular driveway, walks past it. The men standing beside the black SUV in dark suits get in and that car starts to follow him. As we see other men on the rooftop of his mansion, we wonder if this is a very rich man going for a walk, but being followed by guards just as his large home is being protected by armed men on its roof. Is he a very wealthy gangland boss? But he is dressed impeccably, like a Parisian banker. But perhaps the director intended that we in the audience perceive the two roles as one.

Then we are introduced to a very long white stretch limousine. The rear door is opened by the chauffeur and our well-dressed financial czar (or mobster?) steps into the back. But we have already been taken aback. This is not what was supposed to happen. For the person who greets the gentleman as Mister Oscar (played by Denis Lavant, pretty well a constant in all the director’s films and, obviously, an enormous talent), the chauffeur who opens the door, is a well-dressed uniformed woman, Céline (Édith Scob). But why any surprise? After all, this is 2015.

When Mr. Oscar settles into the back seat, he engages in a number of phone calls so seemingly confirming he is a wealthy banker or business man. But then everything changes. He opens a folder and asks his chauffeur/assistant the location of his first appointment. Suddenly, the back of the limousine turns into a make-up room, and, as we soon learn, a costume change room. Mr. Oscar emerges from the stretch limo in the next sequence is a radically changed form.

This is a movie that in one scene after another recalls cinematic history by a director, Leos Carax, an anagram of Oscar and Alex, the first name of the Director, Alex Christophe Dupont. Carax is an amalgam of the real person with a real name and a construct of the movie world, Alex. Carax insists that he is not a cinephile. But the references are recognizable, and there are too many of them that we easily recognize. In this movie, we keep being jarred to attention as each vignette – termed “appointments” in the movie – contains one or more divergence that distract us as well as shake our memories to attention. In fact, the whole movie could be said to be an exercise in distraction and redirection. That is, if anything at all can be said about the film as a whole.

But that is not even how the movie begins. The “real” beginning acts as a prolegomena to tell us that this movie is not just about one day and evening in the life of the chauffeur, Céline and the man she drives around Paris, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) – or, as we are led to question later in the movie, was that beginning not just another vignette in the film, a pre-appointment as it were? For the movie started before that scene of the mansion, the guards, the banker entering the stretch limo, the female chauffeur borrowed as an extra from a James Bond film, and certainly any of the appointments.

The actual movie begins in a hotel room, and not a very fancy one, but one that reeks of age and nostalgia. Or is it a hotel – perhaps only an old apartment? What hotel permits a dog to sleep on the bed? The Sleeper (played by Carax himself) wakes up and the viewer doesn’t know whether he is really awake or walking in his sleep or dreaming that he is walking in his sleep. But he does appear to be awake. Since the character is played by Carax himself, is the movie about himself, a director/actor who has been, like Rip Van Winkle, the paradigm of the imagination colonizing everyday life? Carax was asleep for thirteen years, not twenty, put perhaps he regarded his last productions as products of an imagination that had gone to sleep. Stupefied, he suddenly wakes up to once again re-enter the magical imaginative world of the cinema in which enormous changes have taken place over the past decade or two. Are we going to watch an updated version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story I repeatedly told my children when there was thunder and lightning outside.

But it is a lonely return. Carax, as he looks down on the audience from an upper balcony, is totally alone even though the theatre is packed. The audience is totally passive, reversing the situation of Sleepy Hollow where the phlegmatic Dutch had turned into activist Yankees. This will not be Cosmopolis, a movie about the Yankee preference for change and wealth and power, and their loss, but about the costs of the transformation. The dozing dog in the hotel room or the apartment, like Rip Van Winkle’s Wolf, is left behind as the main character will now be replaced by an actor like Joseph Jefferson who performed Rip Van Winkle for 45 years.

Why is Carax so tentative, so hesitant, seemingly so lacking in confidence, since his movies of the late eighties and nineties were significant artistic successes? There is a hidden door in the wallpapered wall of trees. Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in a birch forest in the Catskills. The Sleeper magically finds the hidden door, just as magically comes up with the key and opens the door. He is in a passageway and enters a theatre where we see the uniform frozen audience looking as if it is waiting for the movie or play or opera to start. I noticed that not one member of the audience had popcorn.

Then a very large dog, a black bull mastiff, the size of a small pony, meanders down the aisle. A mastiff, one of the oldest breeds of dogs, is rarely seen around anymore. Is cinema, at least movies made on film, as obsolete as the old non-digital projection of celluloid films, as obsolete as the old comedic silent films of Buster Keaton who went from being a janitor and a projectionist and entered the screen itself in a memorable dream sequence to become a character in the film? Now it has all been reversed. The characters on screen leave the celluloid world to become part of real life that they have now colonized. Or is this a rebirth of the new life of the cinema in which everyday life in Paris has become a colony of the imagination? Has the man in the balcony metamorphosed into the toddler in the aisle? Who is the child who cannot walk through the mirror but is already on the other side looking out through a porthole?

But perhaps the movie is not about these wild exercises of the imagination – not nearly so wild when you recall the precedents – but a commentary on movies as a genre of art, as a genre of watching images reflected on the cave wall. Or, at least, not merely about the images as about what imaging and viewing images is itself about in an age when the camera can be hidden, when the spectator can remain unseen and remote. Humans have reverted from being active but damned Yankee citizens of a new Republic and have become passive subjects once again, but of a new empire of the imagination. Has Carax taken us back into Plato’s cave where immobilized people captured and tied to a log on which they sit watch shadows projected on the wall with a concentrated gaze and unable to take their eyes off the screen to see the wider world? Or is the movie really about a cinema reborn where everyone in the audience is his or her own director, where the real movie is not the one you watch on the screen, but the one you replay with your mind’s eye? We are no longer passive witnesses but active consumers.

In a next-to-final scene, Edith Scob, the chauffeur, when she is leaving the parking garage (Holy Motors) for stretch limousines before they all go to sleep, puts on a mask replicating the same scene she played in George Franjin’s Eyes Without a Mask. This is a very appropriate ending, even though the director insisted the choice was totally arbitrary. As she puts on the mask, Edith says, “I’m coming home.” How can the choice of that scene be arbitrary when the movie is all about unmasking the masks and roles we act out? Is it not appropriate that a movie about unmasking of masks ends with the only continuing actor playing a single part now putting on her mask just before she presumably resumes her real life?

And we know the director is being playful, is playing with us and suggesting that all of life is indeed a play because, when Edith leaves the parking garage, Holy Motors Parking Garage, that is such a standard setting for so many films because a parking garage is not made for people to live in, but does exist as a place in which people will die. Or, at the very least, secrets will be revealed as in Pakula’s 1976 cinematic take in All the President’s Men of the Watergate Affair in Washington. In the parking garage, when Bob Woodward, The Washington Post journalist, meets the mysterious Deep Throat, his informant, later revealed to be Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI, leaks the secrets and unmasks the nefarious activities that President Nixon had been up to while Felt himself remained a great secret for decades. Thus, does art imitate life and life imitate art?

But this isn’t a snuff movie or a spy movie or a gangland action thriller, but a playful comedy. Nor is it an action movie – envision Fast and Furious  or Steve McQueen in Bullitt – with car chases and crashes as automobiles race through the streets of Paris as in Ronin. Numerous cars are not destroyed in this movie. They are just parked for the night safely in a garage and engage in small talk before they go to sleep. These huge gas guzzlers fear they will be sent to a limo cemetery. As the stretch limos talk, their lights flash on and off in synch with their words. They are finally going to sleep for the night and this dormitory for limos finally goes silent when someone calls, “Lights out!” or the equivalent. A world has come to an end.

What a contrast with the movie itself that goes from one surprise to another as the main character shapeshifts from one episode to the next, using the back of the limo as his dressing room. Cinema is a form of popular entertainment that allows each viewer to slip into the skin of one of the characters in the movie. In this film, the main character himself slips into the skin and the costume of the character he will play in that episode.

My son, the filmmaker, the one who highly recommended Holy Motors, wrestles with the question of whether audiences and viewers spending their time creating and imagining themselves as different characters, an exercise exacerbated by the internet and social media, are not surrendering the possibility of self-determination, the possibility of determining how we act, on what basis and for what purpose. This mirrors Carax’s concern with freedom and self-determination and his conviction that, in the contemporary era of videogames, TV series, and action and hero films, we are not all falling into the trap of playing a role at the cost of our individual freedom of self determination.

Is there an alternative to becoming the post-modernist message of that media? Does a filmmaker not contribute to the problem of the media serving to enable people to shed one skin and assume another, and to do this even more so on the internet and on social media? Are we being reduced to passive actors in a globalized play? Or are we re-experiencing life as youngsters with playful imaginations, thereby bringing joy to the world through a wide variety of exercises of the imagination?

Instead of distracting, but mesmerizing car chases, which provide a stretch to our imagination that takes it in the direction of destruction. Leos Carax throughout the film takes us back to our lives as children when we imagine ourselves as anyone, even as any thing. One large mechanical instrument is both the carrier of death and the vehicle for recreating ourselves into the fictions of our own imagination. That is the only way I could make sense of the child in the aisle of the theatre at the beginning of the movie, even though making sense is counter-intuitive to the experience of the film. And in the end, these all have been children’s stories about, “Where the wild (and not so wild) things are” before we become the stretch limos who talk a bit before being hushed and sent off to the world of sleep.

In The Premature Burial, Edgar Allen Poe’s ode to the phantasmagoria, he wrote that when themes are too horrible even for the purposes of legitimate fiction, when we are living through a period in which audiences thrill with intense pleasurable pain as they are abandoned in space, cast adrift in a frozen earth, left abandoned on an island, and, even worse, subjected to a catalogue of human misery replete with human suffering and disaster and partially forced to live through a segment of the Holocaust or of the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, when we are thrust into apocalyptic calamities or thrown into world wars on a galactic scale, when truth is far worse than the imagination can ever portray, to what purpose can we put the imagination? Must our inventive imagination be cast into the dustbin of history?



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