Ghosts in the Machine
by Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Leos Carax, France, Indomina Releasing
It begins at the beginning, with the first images that—thanks to the strange alchemy of human perception and scientific inquiry that made cinema possible—reproduced actual movement through a series of still pictures. The opening shots of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors belong not to Carax but to Etienne-Jules Marey, the French physiologist so determined to learn about the motion of nature’s most clever locomotive machines—the bodies of humans and animals—that he invented what was essentially the first movie camera to study them. Marey’s films, the earliest of moving images, depicted purely physical performances, like a dog trotting or a cat landing on all fours after falling from a height, or, as in the brief clips that begin Holy Motors, a man running or leaping. André Bazin once called the cinema “change mummified;” before Marey invented a camera that could, in Bazin’s terms, mummify its subjects, he studied them by shooting them with a gun, albeit a photographic one: he created a device that captured movement as a series of images on a single picture using a rifle. It may be fair to say, then, that even before its birth, the cinema had an indeterminate relationship with mortality.
Though Holy Motors was shot digitally, it both celebrates and eulogizes the analog technology Marey helped to invent. This is a movie about movies—and one might say, about film specifically—but also about death, obsolescence, performance, movement, technology, machinery, and spectatorship. Carax draws these themes together both explicitly and obliquely and largely trusts that his audience will understand their interrelatedness—specifically how the cinema itself seems to subsume and expand outward to touch on each of these ideas, even if this particular film refuses to (and could never possibly hope to) overtly connect the dots. About halfway through the movie, a mysterious character played by Michel Piccoli speaks with the protagonist, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant). They talk about performing before an apparatus, presumably a movie camera of some kind. These apparatus, they acknowledge, have grown smaller and smaller over time, and at some point, they seem to have disappeared altogether—perhaps the film is set in the post-DV future, one in which cameras are invisible, as is the audience. The conversation concludes speculatively, “What if there is no beholder?”
The movie’s ostensible prologue seems to confirm this fear. An unnamed man (Carax) discovers a hidden door in the wall of his room, leading him down a dim passage that delivers him to a movie theater. But the spectators are all distracted, asleep, or perhaps even dead. What if there is no beholder, indeed? Still, the show must go on, and so the movie launches into its narrative proper, a series of vignettes structured around a sequence of elaborate “performances” played for an absent audience. Holy Motors evokes a post-movie era where the mechanism used to record the profilmic is, like the audience itself, no longer there and where the binary distinctions between the mechanical and the organic and the fictional and the real—or should one say the reel and the real?—seem no longer to hold.
Holy Motors assumes a retrospective posture. It looks back on a century of cinema, an art form born of the scientific study of the physical world, from the perspective of the digital age. It acknowledges the fact that actors and movement are now recorded as ones and zeros that float above us in a virtual cloud with no concrete physicality. In one of Mssr. Oscar’s first performances, he dons a spandex suit outfitted with motion capture sensors and runs and exercises, much like Marey’s athletes, for an invisible director. He then engages in a sex act with an unnamed woman that is animated in real-time, the most sensual and creative of physical acts thus transformed into a digital spectacle. Carax’s movie is quite obviously about the death of film and the relationship of the physical world to this now-digital medium, yet Holy Motors only follows this line of thought to a point. It has too much else on its mind to become bogged down with something so grand as the ontology of the cinema. Flitting from genre to genre and milieu to milieu—from horror to thriller to domestic drama to love-story musical—Holy Motors proves too restlessly kinetic and often, frankly and effervescently silly, to be labeled a “meditation” on anything. The result is something joltingly entertaining and intelligent that also occasionally registers as glib, even hollow.
After its oblique prologue, Holy Motors settles into an episodic narrative in which Mssr. Oscar travels the streets of Paris from “appointment” to “appointment,” chauffeured in a limousine (one of the film’s “holy motors”) by Céline (Edith Scob). The limo serves as a luxed-up film-set trailer, complete with a dressing room where Oscar applies makeup and learns the details of the roles he is to assume in each of his next appointments—here, he must appear as an elderly beggar, there as an emotionally abusive father, and in yet another appointment as an assassin (and perhaps also as the assassin’s victim). Early in the film Lavant reprises a character from the omnibus triptych Tokyo!, Merde, the leprechaun-like sewer-dwelling misanthrope who terrorizes and kills humans he encounters on the street. The Tokyo! reference is one of Holy Motors’ most explicitly meta moments, but it’s also the first tip-off that many, if not all, of Mssr. Oscar’s appointments are somehow touched by death. Perhaps Monsieur Oscar has been charged with enacting tragedies, tales of failing bodies and dying human machines.
The appointments get progressively darker, more violent, and brutal, climaxing in an unplanned interlude with a former lover (an arresting Kylie Minogue) in an abandoned department store. The two of them, full of regret and longing, make ambiguous references to their past together as she prepares to suffer—or is it more appropriate to say “perform”?—the most emotionally brutal of the movie’s many death scenes. Before she plays out this death, though, she performs for us, belting a ballad called “Who Were We?” If the song presumably comments upon her long-ago-perished relationship with Oscar, it also acknowledges that identity in the cinema is unstable and in a constant state of flux. The moment is confrontationally meta, reminding the audience that she is Kylie, the pop star, singing a song in a movie; meanwhile, she’s playing a character who is an actor about to perform an act that is staged as performance but that has the most violent of consequences.
Despite its morbidity, Holy Motors propels forward on the exuberant performance of its star. Lavant takes on character after character, disappearing into each new role with thrilling bravado. Oscar, like Lavant, is a chameleon transformed time and again by his remarkable makeup but also by the way he moves—his posture, gait, and face. The pure physicality of the performance—Oscar’s and Lavant’s—evokes silent cinema, and in so doing, it further squares the circle, reiterating the movie’s implicit invocation of the history of the medium, grounding this now-digital art form in the physical. In ways that recall Marey’s first movies, Holy Motors is about the marvel of Lavant’s body, the wonder of the performer’s movement.
In Holy Motors, it’s unclear who is an actor and who is not, which characters onscreen are aware that the frequently violent actions taking place are fiction and who are merely spectators. Towards the end of the movie, Céline places a mask over her face as she steps out of the strange fictional reality the limousines have come to represent, presumably into the real world. But the mask she wears is a nod towards another movie starring the same actress (Eyes Without a Face). So maybe there is no real world. Maybe everyone is always wearing a mask of one kind or another, and maybe everyone is both actor and audience, playing roles in which others have cast them. In Carax’s Holy Motors, film may be dead, but perhaps everything is cinema.