Holy Motors: An Actor Prepares

Leos Carax often presents Paris as a geographical region defined by vast psychological diversity, which allows the surrealism of his film’s plots to suspend their audiences’ disbelief long enough to break them down into accepting the internal logic of the story, which is taken to the extreme here: every 10 to 15 minutes, a new story is being told. What links them all together, is the performance of one man portraying the protagonist of each segment, an eidetic actor known to the audience as Mr. Oskar.

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Mr. Oskar, as portrayed by Denis Lavant, is the kind of actor dreamt of by Acting greats such as Stanislavski, Brecht, or Grotowski – his ability to become any one of the characters he portrays for a living, is the fruit of the methods they devised, and that’s without considering the supernatural aspects of his skill set. As an actor, Oskar displays the capacity to cut through and execute the immersive method of Stanislavski in seconds, create plausible, personal, almost-private interactions with co-actor and audience alike the way Adler stressed, and leave the unsettling, incisive effect Grotowski asks his actors to inflict on audiences with the aid of nothing but their ability as performers. Oskar is what any of these practitioners would consider a “holy actor”, the Übermensch each of their techniques could only hope to turn a man into.

The strongest aspect of Holy Motors, along with what makes it the most insane film in this class’s roster, is its complete devotion to the utter destruction of narrative logic. The film begins with a man’s transformation into an old beggar woman, makes a shift from an episode about a monstrous figure kidnapping a woman and using her as a doll into another about a man giving his daughter a scolding, has its lead character die then come back to life in under a minute, and ends with the revelation that the titular cars we’ve seen the leads ride about on one of can talk, and seem to have lives of their own. More than A Woman Is A Woman, or Persona (which is saying a lot), Holy Motors finds ecstasy in the act of breaking its audience’s logic and notions of linearity, forcing them to give in to the high stakes emotional provocation that the film dispenses consistently. This state of emotional susceptibility is something that an actor also ideally inoculates his audience with, early on in performance.

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Denis Lavant is a long-time collaborator of Carax’s, and the real-life subtext of this film seems to be that it doubles as a tribute and showcase for the man who’s helped shape Carax’s body of work, in the same manner that Anna Karina served as Godard’s muse during his peak period, albeit in a more professional manner. Holy Motors’ originality, radically deconstructive narrative, and raw power is anchored by the collaboration between these two men, and the appreciation they have for the craft of filling a role to completion. Holy Motors has yet to be named as an iconic and subversive modern classic, but when that day comes, the people behind it will have most likely moved on to works just as strong, if not madder.

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