Holy Motors (Carax, 2012)

Holy Motors lends itself to conversation about identity and all the slippery little details we cobble together to make sense of ourselves and our relationships. Father, daughter, elder, voyeur, employee, companion, uncle, etc… There is a Confucian arithmetic to the way Lavant’s character travels across so many different relationships in this troubling riot of a film, each one embedded in successive blocks of narrative that range from a Mr. Merde vignette to a Kylie Minogue number.

This identity conversation also helps us make sense of the many cinema-nerd nods to Jean Seberg, King Vidor, Franju, and a whole lot more. All these details evoke Carax’s known obsession with cinema history, which is shared by an audience happy to point them all out. Another juicy layer involves the use of DV, motion capture, and cost-saving production techniques that Carax has famously resisted. Drilling down a bit farther we find website epitaphs and dreamlike doppelgangers that thicken the identity plot. (All the way down the rabbit hole: if you look closely at the bedroom prologue, it is Carax himself that unlocks the hidden passage, not Lavant.)

And in much broader strokes, the identity conversation works well here given that Lavant’s character is both self-destructive and self-creative at the same time, which now strikes me as a very handy way to describe the rest of Carax’s cinema.

Holy Motor #1:

The title begs for an entirely different conversation that makes the identity-making process in the film even more intriguing. Andre Bazin famously spoke of “holy moments” as the DNA of cinema realism. In such moments, time, duration, space, and an attendant sense of transcendence momentarily click. This alchemy was generally ascribed by Bazin and others in the New Wave era to the presence of an auteur as one who is bearing witness to life and genre in a particular way – capturing these glimpses through formal gambits that approximate the process of life (deep focus, trends in montage, tracking shots, etc…).

But as this is Carax’s first digital feature, Holy Motors isn’t a film. Not in the Bazin sense. The holy motors in this film are those creative processes formed by the tools of an era different from the one formed by Bazin’s awareness of the physical process of film passing across a shutter at varying speeds. This literal movement, he suggested, distinguished film from other media as the principle modern art. For Bazin, cinema contained an evolution in our self-perception and social awareness by virtue of the way it materially connects to its subject matter.

In the motion capture sequence, for example, we see the gears of a different motor turning. They are not more or less complex than the ones which generated Bazin’s “holy moments.” But they are different. Lavant’s starry body spins about the unlit sound stage, unfolds in digital animation, and then passes across a wash of blinking color. Paris streets dissolve into a post-production kaleidoscope. Follow the urls on the tombstones and they return us back to the film through a web 2.0 portal. These are all elements of a cinema culture that has evolved in fits and starts alongside changes to the technology available to filmmakers. Perhaps Carax is shifting Bazin’s connection between the materiality of cinema and “holy moments” to a connection between emerging possibilities for contemporary cinema and the holy motors behind its finer examples. If so, this merits a lot of consideration.

Incidentally, the more saturated nocturnal shots of Paris may contain the film’s most dense film-nerd allusion – those being the video and digital color saturations present in several of Godard’s recent films. If this layer of reference is present, Carax brings us full circle back to Bazin’s “holy moments” and the way Godard fiddled with the New Wave – for better or for worse.

Holy Motor #2:

And then there is Lavant as the holy motor; a bundle of sinew and knobs of dancer’s muscle combusting plot and pathos in explosive bursts: the fire breather, the lone night club dancer, a one man flash mob.

What happens when we undo Bazin by inserting “motors” into the “moments” slot? Let’s assume that Carax films Lavant’s body in such a way that he overwrites classical concerns about time and space with the raw materiality of movement and presence – Lavant’s slapstick ballet becoming like the dance of a bee or the reading of a gambler’s tell. If this is the case, the tracking shot or the edit or the depth of focus is no longer at the center of our concern and have been replaced by particular body transmitting information across the span of a storyboard.

The temptation to decode Lavant’s movements as a cryptic narrative is present. But in Holy Motors (and elsewhere) Lavant resists such ease of translation through Carax’s careful attention to cinema as a space in which gestures become meaningful and transformational – like a sly wink from a friend, or a welcoming wave at a distance, or the droop of a shoulder in a hospital waiting room. Our bodies are not simply containers for dialogue or geometric components of a frame, but actors in a drama scripted by all the little movements we make, unconscious or otherwise.

But I suppose saying that the body becomes meaningful in Carax cinema is incorrect, as in Lavant’s twitches and pirouettes we see that our constantly signifying bodies remain meaningful in cinema despite the confounder of artifice.

Lavant as the holy motor is not simply providing a catalog of gestures that make human presence meaningful in different contexts. This motor is also aging and changing. It is a motor that has a shelf life; it experiences a wide biological range: fatherhood, seduction, companionship, rage, even death. It wears out. The gestures become more costly and difficult. This is to say that we are not the sum of our gestures and movements, but they are the map across which time traces its biographical contours.

As one who has been enamored of Lavant as a performer ever since Denis filmed the pulse of blood across the veins of his bicep at the end of Beau travail, I can’t help but watch Holy Motors as a celebration of Denis Lavant as a holy motor in the tradition of Keaton, Chaplin, Chaney, Tati, Groucho, Mr. Bean, etc… – a cinema history of bodies physically articulating all these emotions buried deep in our thoughts and responses. The idea that the slapstick artist, the make-up artist, the buffoon retains a form of holy eloquence is more startling than it should be.