Holy Motors: A Performance Piece

Denis Lavant

Holy Motors is a film that was not particularly my cup of tea, but still one that I rather enjoyed studying. Like the other European films we were required to watch for the class, it was far from the customary, but it was still much weirder than all the other movies presented to us. It didn’t really have a plot and the character was odd, free of any charisma, and even performing extremely peculiar acts that I was originally completely repulsed by. At first, I couldn’t sit through the off-putting acts the character was engaging with like the random 3D sex, biting off someone’s hand, licking a woman’s armpit while blood was coming out of his mouth, etc. It’s as if the movie wanted so bad for people not to like it that it decided on the nastiest things someone could do and made the character do it. However, I realized that beyond the weird acts that were committed by the protagonist, the film was a study on performance, and how an actor’s talent still remains an essential part of cinema.

Guillermo del Toro once talked about the genesis of cinema rooting from theatre, costume-design, set-design, and other forms of art which pale in comparison to what people notice in movies now, such as screenplay and cinematography. By abandoning a comprehensible plot and grand special effects, the film allowed other art forms to take center stage. The movie focused on complex a complex performance with brilliant makeup and costume-design showing that even without a coherent story, other art forms can still stand on their own. It kind of reminds me of how other paintings do not have to be thoroughly analyzed and squeezed for an interpretation and history, when they can be appreciated for what they are. Some modernist paintings require us to take a step back and just appreciate them organically and I think this movie is making a modern movement that mimics that statement as well. It’s sort of similar to how L’Avventura abandons the importance of a plot, only this is more dedicated in truly not having a driving force of a story.

I was surprised with the scene of the protagonist suddenly picking up his daughter in the middle of the film and acting like an actual father with real questions that a real father would ask. I thought that that was really just him picking up his daughter in the midst of all the performances he had for the day, instead of it being just another acting gig. But after watching the scene with the niece who turned out to be an actress as well, I realized that the daughter might have been an actress too. However, the idea that the daughter could be real and that ordinary life is situated in the middle of all the madness seemed more appealing to me. I think it symbolizes the possibility of grappling the absurdity too in our day-to-day lives because they can exist side by side with the mundane.

The conversation in the car with the random old man also striked me. He mentioned doing what he does simply because of the act itself. However, he was specific in naming the change of the size of cameras nowadays as the reason, but I think it symbolizes how modernity is changing how art is. Nowadays it’s more common to lose the sense of creating for creation’s sake because of how fast the world is moving. I think it’s the creator of the film also talking to us about how he sometimes does not believe his works anymore because they no longer feel real to him. This is also supported by the character continously getting mad at lying (getting mad at his daughter and to someone named, “Theo” for lying). It contrasts how acting is basically making an audience believe in something that is fake, but talks about how acting in it’s own way is honest in essence because of how much artists of the craft believe in it.

Although despite all these musings about the film, there are still so many things that confuse me such as the monkeys, the talking cars in the end, and the significance of a driver to the point of even showing her put on a mask. But despite all the ambiguous things in the film, I can’t help but appreciate it’s dedication in shining light on the importance of performance in cinema.

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