The Different Faces We Meet: A Discussion on Holy Motors

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax

One of our deep needs is to understand the world around us. Uncertainty and ambiguity pushes us to generate more explanations until we come up a plausible conclusion. This moment of thought and reflection is precisely the aim of Leos Carax when he created Holy Motors, a 2012 French-German film starring Denis Lavant and Édith Scob. Unlike any conventional Hollywood film you might have seen in the past, Holy Motors introduces a day in the life of Oscar, played by Lavant, as he disguises himself into different characters in the back of a limousine. His chauffeur, played by Scob, tells us that Oscar will have nine appointments throughout the day. 

The nature of Oscar’s appointments are never revealed. Initially, you might think that he is a businessman trying to show the cruelty of society when he arrived at his first appointment as a beggar woman. As soon as he dons a motion capture suit and performs an erotic scene with an actress, you begin to wonder, “What’s going on in the film?” The next scene becomes more bizarre than the last as Oscar transforms into Monsieur Merde, kidnaps a model from a shoot and makes her do all sorts of things in a cave. Thus, the film’s eccentric, strange, and provoking qualities seem to present European cinema as an avenue for wide-ranging techniques for filmmaking and storytelling. More specifically, Holy Motors points towards the idea of counter-cinema put forward by Peter Wollen in his essay, Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d’Est. For instance, the lack of  a cause and effect driven narrative is evident in the film as we see things happening to Oscar as opposed to events being a result of his actions. His goals and desires are hidden from the audience. For some, confusion may be the dominant feeling as a result of the disconnected scenes. However, I believe that by using narrative intransitivity, Carax was able to take the audience in an exhilarating, visually compelling ride. Each scene feels as if you are opening a present on Christmas day: you will never what you will get inside. His scenes invite you, then, to stop thinking too much; rather, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Furthermore, you may feel estrangement from the characters because we never truly see their identity. Although it seems like we see the true Oscar when he is in the back of the limousine — such as the one who admitted that he is getting tired of the job, the scene where he escapes from the limousine and remains unharmed after getting shot multiple times suggests otherwise. Other scenes such as when he played a father to an insecure daughter makes you question whether their relationship is genuine or if the daughter is simply another actress who plays a role. Having said that, the film exhibits multiple diegesis since the scenes have nothing to do with each other. The plurality of the worlds is evident in Oscar’s roles and the world around him. For instance,  the scene where he plays an accordion with other musicians came out of nowhere. The people in the cemetery seem to be normal people who were disgusted when Oscar appeared as Monsieur Merde, whereas a young woman admits that she is also an actress when Oscar took on the role of a dying old man. By using estrangement and multiple diegesis as techniques, Carax shifts the focus of the audience from building a connection with a typical character to exploring the world of making film filled with different genres and actors. He makes the work that goes into the production of a film apparent by giving glimpses of Oscar in his theatrical dressing room in the back of the limousine before and after each role. At one point, Carax includes a scene between Oscar and another man that reveals the former’s intention in performing the roles: the beauty of the act. Carax hints the effects of the changing landscape of the film industry to the actors, to the directors, and even to the audience.

Just as we thought that the film’s strangeness ends when the main characters part ways at the end of the day, the appearance of talking limousines beg us to stay for more. You may ask: Do the main characters know that the limousines can talk? At this point, we have accepted the fact that our questions will never be answered. Maybe talking limousines are just as normal as biting fingers in Oscar’s world. Holy Motors reminds us that sometimes, the best movies are meant to be enjoyed rather than understood.

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