Holy Motors II – a movie review

Holy Motors – Part II: a movie review


Howard Adelman

I wrote about one film called Youth which was about youth in old age. Yesterday I introduced you to Carax’s movie, Holy Motors, which is about youth even in death, about energetic, creative vigour even when the objects of study are long dead but unburied creatures of cinema that are resurrected for the occasion. How can a movie take you on such a dizzying ride through the imagination, delivering electric shock after electric shock? How can a movie so deliberately disorderly actually offer a sense of order? How can a film that re-imagines the imagination itself with such wild exuberance, how can we be taken on a such a wild ride through both the psyche and cinematic lore, how can a movie with such aesthetic abandon be so mesmerizing, yet make me regret going on the ride?

The answer, in a phrase, is that it is the wildest, most terrifying amusement park ride I have ever been on or could even imagine when even the simplest amusement park ride makes me ill and dizzy. I do not drink alcohol. I do not take drugs. Intoxication scares the death out of me. As does weirdness. As do most dreams. But if you can go along for the trip (in its various senses) of a lifetime, if you love chameleon shape-shifting, watch this film on Netflix. If you have already taken the ride, or if you fear wild and terrifying playing with your imagination and will not see this movie, then you can read on as I explore the details of that ride as best I can recreate them in the relatively serene medium of print. On the other hand, if you are a zombie looking for resurrection, if you want to experience a wide range of human experience within one day compressed into two hours, then see the movie and do not bother with this review.

I begin with the ordering of the episodes.

Sequence         Appointment               My Title


I                                                           Theatre Sequence

II                                                         Banker Leaving Mansion

III                    1.                                 Beggar

IV                    2.                                 Diode Dance

V                      3.                                Green Man and the Model

VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car

VII                  Musical Interlude        Accordion

VIII                 5.                                 Chinese Gangster Mirror Killing

IX                                                        Limo Scene with man with the Port Wine stain

X                     6.                                 Balaclava Assassin

XI                    7.                                 Deathbed Scene

XII                  8.                                 Eva and the Air Hostess

XIII                 9.                                 Family Man and Chimpanzees

XIV                                                     Chauffeur with mask;

Limos Going to Sleep

I have already discussed the first two sequences above in my previous blog as Carax re-emerges from his hermetic withdrawal from the cinema to re-enter the world of theatricality, and then introduced you to a classic scene of wealth and opulence, privilege and serenity before taking you outside the safety of the fantasy life of a stretch limo into the underworld of the imagination. So I begin, not with the wild parts of the ride, but with those sections that are no less imaginative, but which are more akin to the lower and level parts of a roller coaster before the cars climb another steep incline. The rest of the trip will be totally harrowing so we must first stare rawest sex and death, eros and thanatos, directly in the face, with only the relief of self-deprecating humour and an ounce of whimsy to water down the strong drink. So we have the so-called “realist” sequences:

VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car

XI                    7.                                 Deathbed Scene


XIII                 9.                                 Family Man and Chimpanzees.

The latter begins in a naturalist or realist narrative and ends in fantasy.

The father-daughter vignette in the red car is a seemingly simple tale in which Monsieur Oscar (M. O) dons the persona of a father who picks up his daughter from a party and then remonstrates her for her unwillingness to socialize. He promises her that she will be punished for her failure. Just keep in mind that in the third scene above, near the end of the movie, that begins in naturalism, a father returns home to a domestic scene, but one in which the daughter as well as the mother turn out in one last wry animistic antic joke to be chimpanzees. But before we reach the final incline upwards of a restoration to the Planet of the Apes as a domestic scene, we must be carried at rocket speed through the past. In writing, it is best to begin that ride when the roller coaster cars are moving relatively slowly.

One psychoanalytic interpretation of the social practice of producing nuns for the Catholic Church is that this is a device for a father to keep and effectively “marry” his virgin daughter. The girl in the father-daughter sequence is pre-puberty. However, the father is NOT evidently trying to keep his daughter Angèle (Jeanne Disson), for himself, but to get her out into the world, in spite of the portrayal of the world out there as one of poverty, murder and mayhem, and, even more worrying, a reality totally captured and transformed by cinema. In a classic tempo of interruption that allows the anticipation and excitement to be more intense, as we travel through a most basic form of love, that between a father and a daughter, just when an adolescent girl must first face her fears of love and lust, of intimacy and being dumped down a side of a cliff, instead of finding a father trying to inhibit the experience, slow the motion of the film in a futile effort to protect his daughter, we have an inversion. It is the father who pushes the daughter to scream and become hysterical and the daughter who cringes in a bathroom in understandable enormous fear of the terrors of the world outside she is about to face.

I take this scene as the first appointment to dissect, because the young pre-teen playing the girl is Carax’s daughter. The movie is a reversal because the daughter fears and rebels against being a sacrificial lamb for the purpose of advancing the imagined life of cinema. Further, rather than the father desiring to keep his daughter a virgin, it is the daughter who tries to freeze her relationship with her father. But the costs are perhaps even greater than in the alternative surrealist scenario.

Is this Monsieur Oscar (M. O) momentarily out of character? In this scene where he collects his daughter from a party and drives her home, is he taking a break from his assignments to perform a family task? He does tell her that he’s been working on assignments all day, and this is the only time we see him driving a car instead of being driven. On the other hand, he’s wearing a wig, so this is probably just another performance, albeit one that is considerably more down-to-earth than some of his others. His daughter initially claims that she enjoyed the party, danced with some boys, drank and smoked. Her father forces the confession that in reality she hid in the bathroom while her friend had all the fun. In the process of interrogation, the father reduces his daughter to tears that fall into her lap.

His vicious and withering punishment is to tell her that “she will have to live with herself” after shoving a cream bun in her face. This use of a sweet offers a bitter twist on the rebellious teenager trope, with a father disgusted at his child’s failure to misbehave. The focus on faces, and the darkness around them, helps to keep the compositions uncluttered, uncomfortably close and intimate. For me, this was the most emotional scene in the whole movie. Other segments show full bodies and some grotesque or dramatic transformations. This domestic drama plays out with each conversant facing forward. We can pick out their inner thoughts from their nuanced expressions: he lets rip with his disdain; she stoically bears the burden of his disappointment.

It’s a heartbreaking moment that could have been sliced out of an entirely separate film. It’s also about performance at some level – the daughter tries and fails to put on an act for her dad. He sees right through it and mocks its inadequacy. Meanwhile, we have to presume that this is M. O in character again, but more than ever, we wonder for what audience this might be. Is anyone watching this intimate scene play out in close-up? M. O says he wants the truth, but his daughter is wiser and more cynical: she agrees that she would lie to him again if she knew he wouldn’t find out. “We’d both be happier.” What started as a stock scene between father and daughter has ended as a lesson in deception. Next time, she will improve her performance, and maybe succeed in fooling her father.

The previous two scenes had been first a rich performance off impoverishment and then an even more surrealist scene of absurdist dance of sexuality and violence in which the effort is to consume and destroy beauty, not to enact it. Suddenly, in the father-daughter scene, we are in a situation depicting a real bond of love, but one, as it were, perceived through an inverted lens. For, on the one hand, the actress playing the daughter, who in reality is the daughter of the director, acts as if M. O is really her father. But the performance in the car reveals a father devoted to a daughter, but in a way opposite to anything we would expect.

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)

The other realist scene in the movie is the one where M. O plays a man in a hotel room lying on his death bed. He is being tended/attended by his niece, Léa (Élise L’Homeau). The scene is very emotional in a different way than the scene depicted above because we know we are watching a performance. When the uncle dies, the niece breaks down into uncontrollable sobs. But surprise. M. O gets out of bed to get dressed and go to another appointment.  Léa, who has stopped crying and is totally composed, introduces herself to M. O as Élise and informs him that she too has to run to her own next appointment. The scene ends with a quip.

If the father-daughter scene in the red car was an inversion of the incest trope, of the dedication of a father to the chastity of his daughter, this scene takes us to the end of life as itself a performance, an acting out of the pain of the other as one dies and one’s own eagerness to welcome death as a relief. The one who is dying wants only an escape from life; the bereaved experience its suffering as pain. But it is a niece, not a daughter lest we confuse the emotions involved in the controls put on incest with the asexual experience of death itself.

The first harrowing scene is tolerable for it only deals with an upright wealthy man of position and posture transformed via makeup and costuming within the stretch limo into a bent-over old beggar woman dressed in rags with a cup held out, but with not one of the dressed-up burghers dropping a coin into her tin cup. This is followed by a diode dance of delight and sexuality, of grace and motion, of simulation and symmetry, where the dancers are not so much under a spotlight as centres of light themselves as they are dressed in motion-arresting suits with reflective sensors that lock in beams of light. The energy of light, the source of becoming rather than being, dynamism itself, is captured and trapped in various frames. What are those frames? They are ones that adumbrate the movie as a whole.

Only then are we transformed with hurricane force from the vignette of class difference and of sexual bonding into the wildest exhibition and expression of the exuberance of physical energy that marries the grotesque to grace and carries the film onto a whole new plane at a much lower subterranean level in which a satyr-like figure in green, a wild leprechaun that reminds me of Donald Sutherland as a student playing Stephano in a Hart House student production at the University of Toronto of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Whereas Stephano was a boisterous buffoon who is both naïve and wily when he partners with a court jester and Caliban to commit murder, the subterranean bare-footed and bare-chested red-headed half-blind leprechaun with wild, red hair and long filthy fingernails that emerges from the sewers (see Léos Carax’s short portmanteau film Merde in Tokyo! 2008) is a figure not raised up to be a lord, but raises himself up out of the lower depths to attack everything, particularly beauty in the world, consuming flowers that he has snatched as he runs wild through the streets and arrives at a cemetery where an advertising photographic shoot is underway.

The beautiful supermodel, Eva Mendes, as a Kate Moss, is posing, with a totally expressionless face that never loses its mask-like emotionless qualities, against a tombstone. Harry T. Bone, a hairy t-bone in white shorts and white ankle socks, is repeating, “Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful,” but when the goddess Kay is grabbed by the satyr-like figure, Bone can only utter “Weird! Weird! Weird!” as he obsessively keeps snapping one picture after another with an old fashioned camera that replaced the modern one with which he was photographing the model against the tombstone. The leprechaun carries her off on his shoulders back to his underground lair.

As in Antonini’s Blow-Up, advertising photography turns into art, but only when the weird devours the beautiful and the focus shifts from fashion to the freak. In the underground world, statuesque beauty is undressed and redressed as a Muslim in a burka as the gnome removes all her notions – her purse and her jewels, her money and even her hair, which he eats. Who needs a hajib then! The naked gnome with an erection lies across the prostrate former model as the two are romantically showered with the petals of snatched and stolen flowers. The beauty of the act has replaced the face of beauty.

The memory of Donald Sutherland in that role almost sixty years ago was reproduced not simply because Stephano and the green figure in Holy Motors even look similar, for their only similarity seems to be their satyr-like characteristics, but because in each production the actor we see on stage or on the screen transforms himself right before our eyes. Stephano becomes a lord and master in his bearing and his posture. M. O becomes an underground figure of rage. Shakespeare’s Stephano, as interpreted by Donald Sutherland, grew in front of us in the audience from a bent-over quirky and shy fellow into a persona posturing like a ruling aristocrat. Perhaps his own experience as a sickly child with not only rheumatic fever and hepatitis, but polio, allowed him to understand how to transform oneself from an object of sympathy to a reigning actor. I suspect, but cannot recall for certain, whether in that 1957-58 season at Hart House, Donald Sutherland also played John, the witch boy in the Howard Richardson and William Berney play, Dark of the Moon who falls in love with Barbara Allen (“The Ballad of Barbara Allen”) and then is transformed into a human. The gnarled and deformed creature from the sewers with his voracious appetite in Holy Motors ends up going in the other direction, both devouring and abducting the world of beauty.

By this third appointment anyone watching the film has to become mesmerized by the freewheeling but very precise execution and magical, even acrobatic, performance of Denis Lavant, though, if like me, also almost nauseous from the wild romantic ride. The combination of poetry and precociousness with hideous repulsiveness, executed with all the artistry of a professional, steeped in the tradition of Teatro del Arte combining mime, movement and magic, stood in sharp contrast to either the verbiage of the theatre of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde or that of the angry young playwrights of post-war Britain and my own writing at the time.

After the more measured and conversational tone, even as the content was inverted, of the father-daughter conversation in the red car, we are offered a formal interlude of accordion players led by M. O playing the Mississippi guitarist R. L. Burnside’s blues song, “Let My Baby Ride” with its repetitious refrain of love as a form of evil and horror::

Love be the devil but it won’t get me
Let my baby ride
Gonna, let my baby ride.

It is the counterpoint to the earlier tune, O.V. Wright’s mischievous, “Don’t Let My Baby Ride,” for instead of stopping his daughter, instead of being trapped by love into a death embrace, M. O lets his daughter go, insists she must go, that she must ride out life on her own just as he, having been so many men and having no identity himself, knows he must release her from the deadly embrace of fatherly love.

Immediately after, we are thrust once more into a House of Mirrors, first with M. O as a Chinese gangster who goes to murder a man identical to himself and, in the process, after stabbing the man in the neck and carving up his face, he in turn is stabbed in the neck and then drags himself back to the limo. In the next mirror appointment, number 6, M. O dons a balaklava and this time shoots a banker that looks identical to himself and is a reprise of the banker at the beginning of the film and then is himself killed by the banker’s bodyguards that we saw in that early segment. He manages to get back to the limo with the help of Céline. This leads into the next appointment, the niece-uncle deathbed scene described above. Between the two mirror murders, a man with a port wine birthmark, sits in the passenger seat of the limo and urges M.O to continue his work even though M. O insists he is very tired. Further, M. O can no longer understand the business of movie acting when the cameras have disappeared from view and he only acts because of his enchantment with the beauty of the act itself.

At the end of the second mirror killing and the third death of M. O as an old uncle in a death bed, there is only one appointment left before the final appointment when the father returns to his ordinary home where his wife and daughter turn out to be chimpanzees when we are back from the human world of performance to the more basic foundation of humanity in the animal kingdom. In that second to last appointment, M. O meets an air stewardess, Eva Grace/Jean (Kylie Minogue) dressed in a trench coat borrowed from a film noir in a closed and empty department store, La Samaritaine, not only preserved and reproduced from one in an earlier film, Lovers on the Bridge, but where M. O acts as anything but a Samaritan, for the world of good deeds has nothing more to give but emptiness, hollowness and death. The air stewardess travels from the roof on her last flight with her lover to the street below as M. O whisks past the corpses.

The film at one level is a revelation of cinema as a copycat craft, empty of all meaning, as merely an arbitrary exercise in Theatre of the Absurd and an assemblage of performative art pieces focused on the actor’s body. After all, a character, a persona, was once, in Latin, the name of a theatrical mask. That persona accompanied with makeup and costumes set in a specific time and place are all used to establish the relationship between the performer and the audience.

Recall the ending of Part I in which, in the last segment, Céline dons a light purple plastic smooth mask in which only the eyes can be seen. (Recall also Georges Franju’s 1960 film Les yeux sans visage.) The face of the film becomes the mask, the masque, the masca, the nightmare, spectre and even witch. The result is an illogical work in which existence appears to be only a performance without meaning or purpose based on scenes which seemingly lack any sense of order. I will try to show on Sunday that the movie Holy Motors is not merely that, in fact, but a replay, one viewed through Carax’s inverted vision, of a divine plot viewed through devilish eyes. I believe the film has a very definite order and interpretation of the most basic elements of existence. After all, it is no accident that the song in La Samaritaine produced as if we were in a Broadway show is sung by the group, The Divine Comedy.


With the assistance of Alex Zisman


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