February 27, 2010 / Filmwell
James Gray’s latest wraps three distinct, remarkable characters around a haunting question. It may make you miserable while you watch, but it will stick with you like few love stories do.
January 4, 2013
Holy Motors touched a nerve. Void of almost any exposition, it seems designed to provoke. We know only what we see: A man named Oscar (Denis Lavant) travels through Paris in a white limo, changing identities and stopping at one place after another to act out in bizarre, sometimes disturbing ways. We don’t know why, but he seems to be acting against his will, like a prisoner. And the way director Leos Carax chains us to Oscar’s point of view, we’re like prisoners, too. We’re there as Oscar dons rags and begs on the street. As he pantomimes sex with a lithe stranger in a motion capture suit. And as he dresses a kidnapped model in a burka before stripping naked and curling up in her lap. Each episode is infused with a disarming sense of realism and surrealism. We’re watching a nightmare come to life–a nightmare imposed on us by a filmmaker who willfully exposes us to a powerless man’s ritual of degradation. All we can do is watch, as if we’re responsible for all of it. That’s our punishment as Carax’s prisoners–to watch, helplessly.
But then, midway through, Holy Motors opens up. It falls short of “making sense” in a traditional way, but we glimpse a thin narrative scaffold taking shape. We see Oscar and his world in a new light. As an actor for cameras he can no longer see and an audience that may not exist anymore, he’s a prisoner only to himself and his art. That dimension–of a man so thoroughly committed to his work–is what frees us, mostly, from responsibility. We’re only a small part of Oscar’s world. He would do what he does day-in and day-out even without us. Why? For the beauty of it, he says to the stranger who appears like a ghost in his limo. “Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder,” the stranger says. To which Oscar responds, “And what if there’s no beholder?” No single question posed by a film in 2012 struck me with the same force, because none led to so many other questions: Who decides what’s beautiful? Is beauty objective or subjective? Does it exist outside of us, or do we make it? That single question, like Holy Motors itself, stirs the blood and ignites the imagination. It provokes, but this time in a good way.
The question comes from a place of vulnerability on Carax’s part. Others have written already about Holy Motors as an allegory for his feelings on filmmaking in the 21st century, and this question drives that perspective home succinctly. Oscar may not have an audience, but he would sooner die than give up his prosthetics and wigs, his costumes and, most of all, the rush that comes with losing himself in a performance. And the same would have to be said for Carax, whose last full-length film was 13 years ago. With physical film stock all but gone, what can a filmmaker do but keep making movies with the means available? The show must go on. But it’s not just Oscar and Carax who soldier on–we do too. The ready complaint of critics and moviegoers is that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt. And yet, week after week, we drag ourselves to the nearest theater to sit in the dark, where we hope to experience some little bit of that magic that inhabits the best movies. It’s too soon to tell whether Holy Motors belongs in that category, but it does force us to think about why artists go on in the face of hopelessness, and why audiences follow.