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.

Eccentric or Simply Perfect?: Reflections on Holy Motors

If you would ask me what’s the weirdest film I have ever watched, I would say Persona by Ingmar Bergman. But then we’re shown with Holy Motors by Leos Carax which features very different stories, all of which are encapsulated in a bigger story that is as mysterious as the ones we’re shown. It is both confusing and stressful to watch because you’ll never know what to expect after the character Oscar finishes one of his assignments. It goes light at first, but each tasks become more difficult as Oscar is faced with many dilemmas including killing and getting killed. Yet, it is also fantastic how after all his struggles in each dramatic task, you see him alive and wanting to do more.

Despite it’s very eccentric scenes, one thing that really kept me interested was how the actor for Oscar was able to act so perfectly, even though as if each scene were filmed for different movies. It was thrilling to see what the actor has to offer because each task he had to accomplish was weirder than the last. For a man who could enact a scene so dramatic like the scene when he was on his deathbed and then switch to an erratic leprechaun who was borderline cannibalistic-slash-herbivore, all I could say is that he is by far one of the best actors I have ever seen. It is also perfect because it was as if he was playing his own life as Oscar, except it was in a more imaginary alternate universe where cars discuss about the philosophy of their existence. It is through this that I saw the dedication necessary to be able to execute such scenes, and the film never fails to show this. Although the scenes during his breaks in the car were mundane compared to when Oscar is in action, these scenes for me were the strongest, because it is where we see the real Oscar. It is where we see him transform, and in this transformation, he becomes so alluring because it is as if he’s still acting even when he is at his most vulnerable. Such scenes for me were the most dramatic because it is here when we try to figure out what is actually Oscar’s life and why he is doing such things.

One thing is certain in this film, it is the dedication necessary to practice the art of acting. Although of course, it seems that this film is on overdrive because the dedication shown is to the death. But, Oscar, for some mystical reason, cannot seem to die even after being shot when he attacks a man who looks exactly like him. I think this could indicate that despite the taxing job, actors live in through it. Their love for the art is what makes them continue, even if the job gets harder and more haunting. That being said, the passion seen in Holy Motors as expressed by its main protagonist is what made me love the film. Despite his odd and almost horrifying scenes, you can’t help but wonder, what is he going to do next?

Holy Motors

Holy Motors is a 2012 film by Leos Carax. It revolves around a mysterious character, Mr. Oscar, who inhabits different personas throughout the day, acting as if he was being filmed.

As a person who doesn’t really enjoy art cinema, this film boggled my mind. It made me think about this person’s daily life, how he would live doing countless performances a day. Why does he do this? Does he have any personal relationships? What does he gain out of this? Nothing in this film made sense to me.

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed some parts of his performances. I watched the film in a way that all his performances would be consumed individually, which makes the film something like an anthology for me. Because of this, I enjoyed the film a little bit more.

Holy Cow

I cannot think of anything else aside from this expression after watching Holy Motors by Leos Carax. Words are not enough to explain how strange the movie was for me. Words are also not enough to just plainly explain what the movie is all about. Given that the film was only made recently, I expected it to be a lot more coherent just like any other mainstream movie that we see today. I thought it would be far more different and a lot less complicated as compared to the previous films that we have seen in class. Yes, the movie might be weird and unconventional but I wouldn’t say that it was not exciting. It felt like the director, Leos Carax, paints on an empty canvass with varying forms of artworks. It also felt like watching several films trimmed into the coherence of our ever-changing protagonist. The scenes constantly change that is why you really have to pay attention to the details. In my first time watching, I get stuck trying to comprehend that events that just happened. I had to watch the film for the second time just to appreciate what every scene has to offer. The way I interpret the film, I think Carax is trying to send a message by appearing in the beginning but I would not expound much about this due to my limited knowledge about the director. The scenes that follow after that appeared to me as the life of an actor taking on different personalities and forms from the beggar to an old man in his deathbed. In all these transitions, it feels like the actor experiences dehumanization by finding difficulty in reconciling with his or her true identity. Aside from this idea, it was honestly quite hard for me to understand the rest of the details that were presented in the movie. I may not be too familiar with the context, reference, or inspiration for the various changes in our protagonist’s appointments. Despite watching the film twice, I was still left dumbfounded by Holy Motors. It is in this aspect that it becomes similar with older European films such as Persona. It really provokes you as a viewer to think and understand what really is happening or to know if there really something that is to be understood. I cannot say that I did not enjoy the movie but I still have a lot of questions about it. I also find it really hard to appreciate these kinds of films because you never really know what you are looking for or what is being presented to you. Otherwise, the other aspects of the film were nothing short of amazement. The cinematography and direction of the film was well done in blending everything that is happening in the movie. I usually take a break whenever I encounter films such as this. I need the time to reconcile my thought and reevaluate what I have just seen. Despite this, I am still open to seeing similar kinds of film as I still try to learn how to appreciate them for their ambiguity.

Holy Motors

Holy Motors (2012) is a strange film. It is perhaps the strangest film that we have watched in class. Devoid of a comprehensible plot that one can hold on to, it presents a day in the life of (what I can only infer) an actor and the various “appointments” he undergoes. The viewing experience was kind of boring at times and became increasingly confusing, but what could not be denied is the engrossment with the performances. Denis Lavant’s acting was the driving force of the entire movie, and it propels the film into excellence.

The movie almost completely foregoes of any cohesive narrative; instead, it appears as a series of episodes that constitute a day in the protagonist’s life. At first I was attempting to find some logic behind the events that were being shown. But after a few episodes, I sort of had a sense of what the film was trying to highlight–the acting–and focused my attention to the performances being shown instead. This purposeful lack of narrative transitivity in order to shift the emphasis to other elements of the film is characteristic of counter-cinema. Usually, viewers are invested in seeing how the plot plays out; in Holy Motors Carax challenges the audience by doing away with an understandable plot and urges them to pay attention to the acting instead.

Holy Motors brings to fore the versatility of the actor–how much dedication and effort goes into the fulfillment of a role. We see Monsieur Oscar, like a chameleon, transform physically into these bizarre personalities, and fully inhabit them. The range of the actor was on full display in the movie as Denis Lavant transforms from a CGI stuntman alien sex being into a man who kills his doppelganger, and then ends up getting killed by the doppelganger. These odd scenarios seem to refuse all comprehension in order to put the spotlight on the performances of the actors.

However, I did notice a departure from this in one of the appointments where Monsieur Oscar assumed the role of an elderly man with his niece. After their heart-wrenching exchange about something I don’t really know anything about (pointing to the excellence of the actors’ performance), Oscar addresses his co-star as himself and asks her about her remaining appointments. It was at this very late point in the film that I found out something about what was going on in the film plot-wise. My hypothesis was proven right by the final scene: Monsieur Oscar was one of many actors under some company/entity called Holy Motors driven around by chauffeurs in white limousines to get to their various acting “appointments”.

With his unconventional approach to film making, Leos Carax creates a work of art in Holy Motors that shatters the lens with which we watch movies. Acting as a medium that bridges the real from the fabricated is the most important cog in the machine that is film, but at times it is deemed secondary to other elements such as the plot or the characters. What Holy Motors achieves is the glorification of acting, the shedding of all traces of reality and other worlds that have been previously experienced, and succumbing fully to this art of transformation, one role at a time.

Holy Motors (2012)

The willfully eccentric Holy Motors (2012) is more than likely the strangest film I will ever watch. In it, we follow a balding, middle-aged man named Oscar (played by actor Denis Lavant) who is driven around the city in a limousine by his driver to play different roles. The catch is, these roles are unlike any theatre, film, or production roles we see in art. There is no stage, no audience, and no explanation. He plays a CGI stand-in for a dragon-like creature in heat, an elvish, leprechaun kidnapping a celebrated supermodel from her graveyard photoshoot, and a beggar on a bridge, among others.

If one were to cite a film arguing for European cinema’s role as a sort of counter cinema, this would be that film. All of Wollen’s elements of counter cinema after all, are present. The execution of this movie is truly unlike anything I’ve seen from mainstream and Western cinema. Besides the fixed itinerary of “appointments” followed by our protagonist, there is also no clear narrative. No semblance of straightforwardness or transitivity is present, and viewers have a hard time piecing together the narrative and the world it takes place in. No identification is given of the characters portrayed; all we are really sure of about them by the film’s end is their names. The characters are estranged from beginning to end. Everything happens in a homogenous world (single diegesis, from day in to day out) but seemingly takes you to another world as the protagonist moves from “appointment” to appointment. The only semblance of a homogenous world is the character himself: a strange man with a strange day job, working for the same agency and coming home to the same family every day after playing how many roles for who knows what purpose. Towards the film’s conclusion, the film’s overall impact shifts from unpleasure to a strange kind of pleasure. I found myself curious as to what role the man would play next, and whether or not it would outdo the last.

The film delves into different kinds of genres, and I genuinely feel like there is no one genre that can completely encapsulate what Holy Motors is. The “fantasy” tag assigned to it by many websites online feel like a mere formality. For instance, by adding music and theatrical elements, the film does transform essentially into a musical. It’s also hard to pinpoint what exactly the film is about and what it’s trying to say. With no audience to watch and no readily apparent purpose, one cannot help but wonder what the point of all this is. Ultimately, I personally feel as though the film is about cinema itsef, about actors and performance and the beauty of the art.

The question of art for arts sake thus also arises during the film. For instance, is it still art when no one is watching? His talent, after all, is obvious. The talent of Lavant, too, is more so when you consider the role he had to play: an actor playing an actor playing many different roles. He sits in his car and has a few minutes to acquaint himself with the script. More admirable still is the fact that not all the roles he had to play were even human; not all of them spoke his language.

In the beginning of the film, Oscar’s children call out to him as he walks away, asking him to work hard. This is something of a foreshadowing once you see the effort he puts into his many performances. All this does afford me a deeper appreciation for the performing arts. I realize that there really are countless aspects to take note of when you are playing the part of someone or something other than yourself.  

By its end, Holy Motors doesn’t give us any sense of closure whatsoever. Instead, I am left with the thought that as viewers we have to be able to detach from our need or desire for finality and conclusion. The film’s overall impact for me approaches a reminder that sometimes things aren’t explained in art, but it can still give us a substantial experience in terms of how we relate to the scene.

Is it possible to understand such a film when it’s made glaringly clear that the film wasn’t meant to be understood? If understanding is a viewer’s goal, perhaps that is not achievable. Yet, what is surprising is that I found that this didn’t matter at all, because after giving it a chance with an open mind, it was the complexity and the complete and utter chaos of a confusing plot, coupled with captivating performances that drew me in and kept me staying until the end.

The willfully eccentric Holy Motors is more than likely the strangest film I will ever watch, but it also makes a case for the most immersive, memorable, and thought-provoking one, too.

Actors: deconstructed

Holy Motors was such a frustrating film to watch. Honestly, it took a while for me to form insights and gain comprehension on the movie because, as it was mentioned in class, perhaps it was not created to be understood. It was so strange — sometimes, I found myself cringing at the scenes. That appointment with Eva Longoria freaked me out because he looked and acted crazy. He bit off her finger! What made it weirder for me was the fact that the model did not react to it. I had questions like: “Was she even a real person?” “What is happening?”

However, the more that we watched the film, the more that I started to realize that he was an actor, and his “appointments” were his projects. Suddenly, I thought of an insight about the model scene. I thought that it was a symbolism of how actors and models — people who are always subjected to the spotlight — can find solace in each other because out of everyone else around them, only their fellow celebrities can understand what they really feel. Only their fellow celebrities can understand that yes, fame may seem fun because they earn so much and they get so much attention, but there are also downsides to being famous. With great fame, comes the stress, haters, and the like. I am not sure if that was what the scene meant, but that was what it meant to me.

Because of the realization that he was merely acting in every single scene, I started to doubt the realness of the scene with his “daughter”, especially when the group who reported on Holy Motors pointed it out. At first, I thought that it was a symbol of how actors are human too. They have their own lives, their own families. The feel of the scene was very different from the others. Oscar was driving his own car. He was also acting calmer and more like an actual father when he was berating his daughter. I want to believe that it was a scene that wanted to show the audience that actors are human too, but what if it was not even a real scene? What if it was another appointment. I would honestly be disappointed if I found out that it was just another appointment for Oscar, and that girl was a random stranger.

Indeed, Holy Motors was a strange film. The different appointments seemed so real every time. One would think that the film was about the old lady, or the weird alien sex, or the crazy-man-biting-off-a-finger. However, the film was about Oscar himself and how he lived his life as an actor. The film still left many questions in my head. I still do not understand why his home had chimpanzees. I still cannot comprehend why the limos started to talk to each other at the end of the movie. The film was truly bizarre, as is all the other films we have watched in class, but I am glad that I was able to get something out of it even though I am not really sure if that was the intention of the director or not.

Sixth

Holy Motors by Leos Carax

If people would ask me what would be the weirdest/strangest movie I could recommend to them, this would be it. I feel that this movie really challenged me in a sense that to try to understand it is to not even try at all.

Holy Motors by Leos Carax focuses on a man named Mr. Oscar who goes around France portraying different and quite unique characters in front of crowds without them noticing it is a part of an act. The movie calls these jobs of Mr. Oscar as ‘appointments’ while he goes around in a limo driven by the only other main character in the movie, Celine, that is used to transport him to different places around France. Each ‘appointment’ that Mr. Oscar goes to escalated from quite normal for the movie to down right strange. This also goes for the movie that became increasingly weird yet engaged me enough to want to know what he would do next.

The way the movie introduced its premise was quite slow, we first meet the protagonist leaving his home and immediately is told about his first appointment and he starts putting on make up and a costume. It is never immediately explained on how the main premise of this being a sort of ‘show’ until a man is in Mr. Oscar’s limo. They talk about the ‘business’ and how it is now changing. Mr. Oscar talks about how he “misses seeing the cameras” and how he is doing this for the “beauty of the act” as well which may come to the conclusion that this may have been filmed more obviously back then and was seen by a bigger audience and was quite popular back then. From simply becoming a beggar on the streets of Paris, to murdering a banker, and to finally coming home to a family of chimpanzees as his last appointment the movie is nothing short of bizarre and unique.

To understand this movie, I believe is to try and understand the weird and uncomfortable. To create beautiful acts or scenes is to embrace the oddity of what it all means. To create something beautiful through weird and complicated means may sometimes become too fantasized by those who want to try and be different and want to seem more inclusive of other kinds of art. Just as Mr. Oscar was portraying Mr. Merde, the photographer simply started taking pictures of him against a backdrop of wanting to portray the ‘weird’. It seemed as if he was forcefully trying to connect both the normal and unique odd-ball types of art forms. From this, a question that came on to me was “To what extent would people go to create beautiful art and what does it mean for art to be beautiful?”

The world continues to change together with its cultures and how people react to art. Society back then used to love the acts that Mr. Oscar portrayed through his appointments. From intimate scenes between father and daughter and another one of his appointments where he talks about life as an old dying man, which shows raw and true vulnerability in film to the outright bizarre craziness of biting off people’s fingers and murder action. But now, we have somehow embraced a different kind of art, one that is all about who and the amount of profit that can be garnered from it.

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.

Holy Motors

Out of all the films that I have watched so far for this class, the film Holy Motors has left me the most confused and uncertain because of its bizarre plot and acting. I am not sure if there even is clear story goal in the film because of the many random scenes and subplots. Throughout the film, Mr. Oscar is tasked with many different roles and complex scenes that can be for another person or sometimes for no reason at all. The role that struck me the most is his third role wherein he plays the role of a crazy red haired man, and he kidnaps a beautiful model from her photoshoot in the cemetery. This struck me the most because his acting showed a completely different person from his last role. I felt very disturbed and scared for the actress because based from his irrational behaviour I thought he was going to kill her. He brought her to the cave and ate a part of her hair, and then he strips off his clothes and goes to sleep on her. This scene also confused me because I was wondering if he did this role for no reason as there were no cameras seen filming his performance. The terror and fear of the people looked so genuine that it looked unscripted and very real. Another moment in the film which I did not understand was the last part wherein Mr. Oscar reaches his last role which is a family scene, but it turns out his wife and daughter are both chimpanzees. All these roles are very random and do not seem to be connected, and because of that it leaves me wondering how to make sense of it.

Despite the confusing and random scenes in the film, I think it makes a great job in blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. There are many scenes in the film, which I am unsure of if they are his real life or just a role Mr. Oscar played. One scene which looked very real was when he picked up his “daughter” from a party, and scolded her for staying in the bathroom and not socialising with others. The whole scene was inside a car, and there was no indication that he was being filmed or that it was really a role. I thought that she could have been really his daughter, and that this could have been a peek at his real life. Then there is another scene with a woman named Eva who supposedly had a child with Mr. Oscar in the past, and then after leaving he sees Eva and her partner jump off a building. The pain he shows makes me think that his relationship with Eva could have been real as well, but then if it was real why did he just run away to the car instead of staying to help. Finally the last scene shows him having a chimpanzee family, and this leaves me being unsure again about what is his real life. I think that this uncertainty in the film is what makes it exciting because it makes the audience continuously reflect and try to understand what they are watching.