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March 2013

Holy Motors

cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, and Kylie Minogue

director: Leos Carax

110 minutes (18) 2012
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Holy Motors

The further we advance into the future, the more we seem stuck in the past. Our cinemas and games consoles are filled with rebooted characters and venerable franchises, while high street shops overflow with fashions that seemed ugly and out-dated 20 years ago. Some thinkers attribute this to 'late stage capitalism' and the 'postmodern condition' but the truth of the matter is that we cling on to what we used to be because are all too scared to admit that we have changed.

Capitalism swept through western culture like an alien plague; destroying communities, shredding class identities, and shattering traditional family structures as it went. Somehow aware that their culture was changing, people began to deconstruct concepts of race, gender, sexuality, and sanity in an attempt to impose some sort of conceptual order on the chaos of their lives. Some went with the flow and others closed their eyes but most stood around looking mildly perplexed... manacled to old ideas about who they were, the middle-classes found comfort in the idea that society (much like hell) was other people.

Alienated from the traditional building blocks of identity, westerners headed for the endless frontier of the Internet, and used these new cultural spaces to construct elaborate social networks that span the globe and fill their days despite nobody ever standing in the same room as the people that they call friends. Only too aware that their fragile identities exist only in the eyes of those who perceive them, people attach themselves to complex technologies lest they be momentarily unable to share a thought, an image or a feeling with the people they value. Do our thoughts and feelings matter if people do not react to them? How can an identity be said to exist if nobody else recognises it? Re-tweet me, lest I cease to be.

To be alive in the 21st century is to be part of an insane social experiment, and yet much of western culture seems convinced that nothing has changed since the days of our grandparents. We are stuck because we are afraid and we medicate this fear with three act structures, pauses for tears, and big cathartic finishes. Who else but 19th century psychologists and novelists should have the final word on what it means to be alive in the 21st century?

Holy Motors by Leos Carax is one of only a few films to recognise the need for a new cultural vocabulary. Informed as much by YouTube, reality TV and social media as it is by the history of cinema, Holy Motors traps the oddness of our lives in a prism of spectacle and fantasia resulting in a film as insightful and moving as it is beautiful.

The film begins with a shot of a cinema audience. Their faces wet with splashes of light from the invisible screen, they sit immobile as a child and a large dog wander around the auditorium. From there, we are transported to a man walking from a large house to a stretch limousine. As people wave the man goodbye and encourage him to work hard, we assume that this is a successful businessman on his way to work. Once inside the limo, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) lines up meetings and takes an alarming phone call in which he is told that his insurers will no longer accept bodyguards, they now expect him and his co-workers to be armed. Having provided us with this fascinating hook, Carax destabilises us by having the businessman turn up at his first appointment dressed as a disabled beggar. What is this? What are we seeing?

From there, Carax transports us through a series of mesmerising vignettes that appear to have been designed with viral marketing in mind: Monsieur Oscar dressed as a leprechaun rampages around a Parisian cemetery, Monsieur Oscar leads an accordion orchestra around an old church, Monsieur Oscar dresses in a motion capture suit, and simulates sex and violence before being digitally transformed into a priapic monster. Each of these short segments is beautifully conceived, brilliantly shot and magnificently memorable and yet their meaning remains elusive. If these are staged artistic 'happenings' then where is the audience? If these are fictions then why does everyone around Oscar treat them as entirely real?

As the film progresses the boundaries between Oscar's 'happenings' and his real life begin to dissolve. In one scene, he picks up his daughter and angrily berates her for her shyness but while the daughter seems aware of her father's odd career, Oscar drops off his daughter and moves on to the next appointment without a second thought. Was that Oscar taking a break from work to pick up his daughter or was it actually another happening? The context of this weirdness comes across in a pair of wonderfully troubling scenes:

The first happens when Oscar's glamorous female driver (Edith Scob) almost collides with another limo. As the two drivers squabble over who is to blame, Oscar looks across and recognises the woman in the back. Not only is she (Kylie Minogue) another 'performer', but she is someone with whom Oscar has real history. Having some time before their next appointment, the two performers slip off to discuss things but it isn't long before the talk of regret and lost love prompts the female performer to burst into song. Another happening... Visibly upset and frustrated, Oscar returns to work leaving unanswered the question of whether he knew the other performer or whether the entire encounter had been staged from the off.

The second happens when Oscar climbs into his limo after another successful job. Drinking heavily and manifestly unwell, Oscar is surprised to find another man in the limo. This sinister and scarred man expresses concern not only for Oscar's wellbeing but also for his commitment to his career. Is Oscar still enjoying his work? Oscar replies that the cameras are now so small that he no longer feels like a performer. To this, the man responds that there isn't much of an audience left anyway.

Taken together, these two scenes provide the film with a philosophical backbone of almost unparalleled insight and urgency: In truth, Oscar is no more of a performer than any of us. Disconnected from any firm concept of self, he moves from one phase of existence to another. First, he is a successful businessman, then he works in motion capture, then he is a dying man providing closure to an emotionally distraught niece, then he is a man frustrated by the fact that a woman he loves simply will not let her guard down and be herself. As we move through our lives, we assume many roles in many different situations and the only way we can keep a firm grip on who we are is either by ignoring behaviour we arbitrarily deem to be 'out of character', or by allowing for the fact that we occasionally 'reinvent' ourselves as entirely different people.

20th century counter-culture was obsessed with the idea that, instead of allowing people to 'be themselves', society bullied people into conforming to a narrow set of social expectations. However, after 50 years of relentless subversion and deconstruction, the mainstream of our culture is now almost impossible to pin down. Cultures are first and foremost collections of signs and symbols that bind and inform the people who partake of them, identities have meaning and status because people partaking of a particular culture recognise and respond to a particular set of signs, but our culture has replaced a single set of cultural signifiers with a collage of more-or-less overlapping cultures that many people struggle to navigate. What is the backlash against political correctness and multiculturalism if not a demand that old cultural privileges be reinstated? As our cultural spaces become more diffuse and intractable, we begin to yearn for that which horrified the 20th century existentialists.

For Jean-Paul Sartre, to be defined by others was to be confined to hell. His 1944 play No Exit was a howl of protest and repugnance at the idea that our identities might somehow rely upon the judgement of others. However, fast-forward 70 years and we demand the attention and judgement of others! We photograph our lunches and live-tweet our social interactions because we know that our identities exist only as long as they are recognised by the people who matter to us. Holy Motors is not about the tyranny of others but the fear of their absence... if nobody is observing Oscar then why does he play the dying uncle, the punk rock accordion player or the husband to a chimpanzee? Why do anything if nobody is paying attention? And if nobody is out there defining us then how do we even begin to define ourselves?

By building a film out of a series of YouTube-friendly vignettes, Leos Carax is helping to assemble a cinematic vocabulary for the 21st century, a vocabulary born not from the certainties of 19th and early-20th century life but from the rolling mystery and bafflement of the 21st. The ambivalence felt by Monsieur Oscar reflects our own: we're not too sure if this makes sense and yet this is all we have. Holy Motors is as beautiful and alive as a broken heart.

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