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.