The 2012 New York Film Festival | Review: HOLY MOTORS

Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is a deeply personal film, the first film of the 21st century to tear apart the modern conditions of filmmaking and expose their ultimate superficiality. I think the film is a masterpiece and will stand as a vital document that describes the challenges and problems facing filmmakers who confront an industry that continues to spiral away from authentic human experience toward a completely artificial, isolated world driven by money, surface and condescension. Not only is this painful realization at the heart of Carax’s film, it is literally its narrative subject; written by Carax in a “rage for being unable to get a film made,” Holy Motors is an incendiary, often hilarious, manifesto in favor of putting human feeling back into the movies.

The film begins with a snippet of a silent film of a human body in motion, which cuts, eventually, to a packed cinema filled with patrons who are sound asleep, dead to the magic of the cinematic image but sitting face to face with the viewer. We soon seen Carax himself waking from a dream (or waking into one) and entering the balcony of a cinema through a secret door. A naked child runs through the aisle, a younger self, the one inside of us of which Carax hopes we are aware, the one he asks we bring to the experience of watching the film, and he is chased by a giant, menacing black dog. This opening is vital to Carax’s point that the cinema has been stripped of its revelatory power, of its history, of being alive to the simple complexity of human experience and action. Carax is trying to restore the magic of the image, to bring a childlike sense of wonder to the proceedings.

Soon, we meet Oscar (Denis Lavant, in a performance for the ages), a businessman who slides into the back of a white stretch limousine and begins to check on the day’s appointments. Suddenly, Oscar begins to transform himself into an old beggar woman, one of many roles he will play during this long day. Oscar panhandles on the streets of Paris and the point is clear that the situation Carax is describing is not the condition of the actor or the condition of cinema, but the condition of the director, the auteur, in the modern business of filmmaking. Here, the artist begins his day by begging for money which, not unlike Carax’s own frustrations with fundraising to make his own films, is a baffling, humiliating process, a “role” that the filmmaker must play in order to continue his work.

M. Oscar

As the film moves along, and as Oscar finds himself in new role playing situations, Carax sets up spaces of action that at once echo the current conditions for filmmaking while, simultaneously, offer a biting critique of their result on filmmaking itself. Take, for example, two of the film’s most memorable juxtapositions– the motion capture sequence and the fashion shoot in the cemetery. In the motion capture sequence, Carax is proposing that filming the very human act of motion capture itself is far more interesting for its physicality and action than the animations and artificiality that result from the process. He is right; in a sequence that pulsates with erotic power, watching Lavant and Zlata Contortionist writhe in unison is absolutely unforgettable.

Motion Capture

In an appointment that soon follows, Oscar arrives at the Pére Lachaise cemetery as a wild grotesque (think Quasimodo) and, alert to the staged, exploitative ridiculousness of a fashion shoot taking place amidst the tombstones (which, hilariously, offer URLs for the websites of the deceased), kidnaps the model Kay-M (Eva Mendes) and steals her away into the sewers of Paris, where he rearranges her clothes into a burka before releasing her back into the world. Never has celebrity and the artificiality of desire been so wonderfully neutered. And what more to say about the moment when Oscar stops the limo and, in an improvised moment of clarity, plays the role of the art terrorist who puts a bullet in the brain of a banker found dining al fresco in a café? This being the artificial world of the film business, Oscar survives death without a scratch, and carries on to his next role. The film continues forward with the momentum of a wildfire, each situation connected to the last by Oscar’s place in it and its relationship to Carax’s central argument about the roles the artist must play within his own life in order to work and live.


There is more; Oscar meets Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) who, like he, operates in the world of role playing and artificiality. She is on her own assignment (a stewardess at the end of a love affair) and as Oscar talks with her, their shared feeling is expressed in song and in dialogue. It is clear that this is Eva Grace’s final assignment and, when Oscar departs the abandoned department store where they have had their rendez-vous, he finds her and her lover splattered on the sidewalk. The suicidal act, seemingly her only escape route, sends Oscar screaming back into the limousine, his self-recoginition in this brutal end too much to bear.

Eva Grace

In the film’s most moving sequence, Oscar plays the role of l’mourant and meets a young woman in a hotel chamber where the two discuss their secrets. This scene is the deathbed conversation between Ralph and Isabel lifted directly from Henry James Portrait Of A Lady, and in it we get a glimpse of true feeling between characters on the big screen. But it is important to remember the conditions taking place in this reference; Ralph has known all along that Isabel’s husband didn’t love her, that he married her for the money and here, as Ralph lay dying, Isabel finally sees it too. In the novel, Ralph is the observer who sees the truth, a man whose illness prevents him fully participating in the joys of life but allows him access to understanding that others do not have. Isabel’s exploitation finds its opposite in the love the cousins share with one another, but it saves neither of them from their ultimate doom; money, exploitation, disease and obligation win out. But here, in this one moment, there is the simple comfort of acknowledgement, of saying aloud and finally hearing the truth, which is exactly the comfort that Holy Motors itself provides. At last, the truth is spoken and nothing will ever be the same.

Let My Baby Ride… 3! 12! Merde!

One thought on “The 2012 New York Film Festival | Review: HOLY MOTORS

  1. Saw the movie last night without knowing much about it. Your review is the most perceptive I’ve read since. I might go a bit beyond the director’s position in the movie-making process to the narrative conventions of film that he has to work within–and the audience’s expectations. I thought of the movie with its many short takes as an evening of television but with the situations reversed or mocked. The scene with the adolescent girl doesn’t end, in after-school special fashion, with the parent and child reaching agreement but in the father’s rage. The model is not raped but turned into a “virgin.” I started seeing the film this way when I recognized the James quotation. Yes, that works in the novel, but it’s also a 19th century convention, the deathbed scene. In the movie, the characters walk away from it. On to the next narrative, the next narrative convention. I’m sure the Samaritan scene mocks some French movie I’m not aware of. And how about the ending? The lighting, the feeling, etc prepare us for a conventional family reunion (though the actor’s home at the beginning seems to be a bldg. that resembles a cruise ship), but we get the bathetic comedy of the apes.

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