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Hail Holy Motors   

A Spontaneous LOLA collective

Part One:
John Conomos – Paul Hammond – Saige Walton – Girish Shambu – Eloise Ross – Cristina Álvarez López – Adrian Martin –
Nicole Brenez – Fergus Daly – Sarinah Masukor


Dear Amigo


You have asked us to just write a few words about Leos Carax’s astonishing new film Holy Motors (2012). Ah, such cruelty, dear Professor: a Surrealist parlour game? A chain letter, perhaps, written across our one, shared, turning planet – and inked in our engulfing fever dreams of ‘yesterday’s cinephilia today’? Is this still possible? What if this ageing enfant terrible of contemporary French cinema is demanding of his contemporaries (don’t be fooled by his mirror-shade persona of nonchalant indifference!) that cinema must dance, make music, speak to itself, speak to us in tongues (which it does, and how!), and awaken us poor, working, Langian stiffs anchored in Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare that life so often is, but does not have to be.


Quite clearly, Carax, after thirteen years of wandering in the wasteland of unfinished projects and missed opportunities, took Luis Buñuel’s advice: he closed his eyes and dreamt this very daring manifesto of a cinema hovering beyond the liminal horizons of multiplex orthodoxies. A cinema that reminds us, from its very opening scenes, of Carax himself, discovering the ‘classical’ in situ truths and poetics of a medium that, once upon a time, dared call itself CINEMA. And to hell with the witless buffoons who parade themselves as cemetery auteurs craving for something a little strange à la Diane Arbus!


Forget the endless, apocalyptic saga of spotting the Russian-dolls-within-Russian dolls film quotes, references and hints to cinema history; sure, great, for those who can spot them, well and good as we sing along with Dino, ‘ain’t that a kick?’ – but what about those among us who are ignorant? Is this untimely masterpiece something, perhaps, to serve as a Japanese Pillow Book for future mutant cinephiles? Deep in my bones, I believe so.


How does one begin to sing the praises of Carax’s thunderclap of chameleon, cinematic imaginings? Nietzsche once desired to have the honeycomb eyes of a fly. Carax has such eyes, that effortlessly evoke Cocteau, Griffith, Murnau, Lang, Welles, Renoir, Godard and Franju (ah, Édith Scob with a mask! How could Carax get away with this?), among countless others, all forming a cabal of sorts (above and below ground: including Max Ernst’s favourite creature, King Kong) who dared to INVENT cinema.


For that is precisely what Carax has done in spades with Holy Motors. Cinema has been reborn in this film: make no mistake about it. When Orson Welles said that ‘the absence of limitation is the enemy of art’, he must have had Monsieur Oscar/Denis Lavant/Carax himself in mind. Or when Cocteau stated, ‘Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as paper and pencil’ – yes, Carax again. And speaking of paper and pencil: just add a box of matches, as Godard once did, and we will have cinema.


Cinema that dares call itself by that name – this is what Carax has given us. When Michel Piccoli steps into Monsieur Oscar’s white stretch limo and they speak of ‘the beauty of the act’ (beauté du geste) that has driven (pardon the expression) them in their careers, and how cameras today have significantly shrunken to the size of a doughnut or a wristwatch (shades of Dick Tracy!), our heat skips a beat. For both of them are talking about how cinema sheds its skin like a snake – it has been doing so since the late nineteenth century. Only, something is lacking for these two, caught in the hurly-burly whirlwind of technological change. Yet something also remains in the twilight embers of their lives: a realisation that cinema is, for those who care, ‘another good reason for living’ (Blaise Cendrars).


There is a photo, circa 1967, of an elderly Michel Simon and a young Claude Berri having a picnic together – quite a Renoirian scene in itself – that has haunted me for years. They seem to have a fraternal understanding of the sheer, ontological necessity to dream of an elsewhere, here and now. Carax is the kind of dreamer who belongs in such company.


Yours in friendship,


John Conomos


A First Look


Marey locomotion studies, animated > man (Leos Carax) on bed with dozing dog in anodyne hotel room > ‘enchanted forest’ wallpaper < Last Year at Marienbad starts with camera moving down corridors with plant-form cornices < main protagonist (Monsieur Oscar/Denis Lavant) will later say he ‘misses the forest’ > man finds keyhole, opens hidden door in wall < Alice in Wonderland? > looks down on motionless movie audience < mirroring of we, the movie audience > with child walking down cinema gangway > girl < Alice? > behind the thick glass of a ‘porthole’ > Oscar, le banquier, says goodbye to his family (including little girl) at gate of 1930s functionalist house with porthole windows > enters stretch limo, which will be his prop store-cum-changing room with makeup mirror > his driver, Céline (Edith Scob, she of Les yeux sans visage) < second stretch limo in 2012 cinema, after Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis > Oscar has dossier of day’s tasks > first one disguised as crone-like beggar, la mendiante < Lon Chaney in Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) comes to mind; Chaney, ‘the man of a 1,000 faces’, as is Oscar with his silicone masks, contact lenses, wispy beards and wigs < Fantômas, too? Or Zelig (aka l’homme caméléon)? > Oscar’s limo always seems to be taking a long curve, almost going round in circles: ‘I’ll take a turn’, he says at one point > second job: as acrobatic actor in motion-capture session < white dots on black costume, as in Marey > are he and his red-clad, contorsionist partner making a porno video game? An SF feature? < images-surprise / film-puzzle > limo’s number plate: 202 DXM 95 > next ‘part’: the crazed M. Merde, who abducts model (Eva Mendes) in Père Lachaise fashion shoot  < the film a paean to Paris as the site of thanatoid, uncanny beauty; the city of the Surrealists  < Surrealist artist Jean Benoît used to eat roses and cigars > throwaway sequences, like the shuffling file of refugee women in the sewer > the way the polyglot Oscar slots seamlessly into the life of others; as the lumpen father of a melancholic teenage girl, for example < can’t help thinking of the narrative swerves and deadpan absurdities in Raúl Ruiz / late-period Buñuel / Alain Resnais > there’s an upbeat, ‘irrelevant’ entr’acte with Oscar as l’accordéoniste > in the next segment he’s both le tueur and le tué (they’re twins), but Oscar (who is also them) walks away unscathed  < mendacious images, miraculous reversals < what is a truthful lie? < elaborate mises en scène / playacting (but to what purpose?) / shifts in genre (le fantastique / noir / screwball comedy / musicals) > Oscar is involved in scenifying the final moments of others; imitating people in the throes of death (‘in at the kill’) > le mourant segment, again with a dozing dog on the playacting moribund’s bed < I think of Alps (Giorgios Lanthimos, 2011) > the sumptuous, derelict Samaritaine building (with its diorama built into the round handrail, I’ve read) as setting for a musical quasi-finale: Kylie Minogue as Jean Seberg; her tragic chanson refers to ‘the dream’ < Carax, at the beginning, is le rêveur > Oscar’s final ‘suburban’ avatar, and the site gag of going home to a family of chimps < ‘it’s all in a day’s work’ > at end Scob masks herself à la Les yeux sans visage > final discoursing of cartoon-film-like talking limos in overnight garage: they lament contemporary man’s indifference to machines (to them) < at some point, insert of magician’s hands making a tour de passe-passe < the movie, an accumulation of enigmas, of discontinuous continuities < recurring father/uncle and daughter image: Carax dedicates his film to a (defunct?) young woman (I didn’t catch her name) > in final credits Carax thanks Franju and Henry James (why him?) < impossible for me to sum the film up: sumptuous but hermetic? Forbidding? At all events, I couldn’t bring myself to go and see it again, hence the tentative, errant scrappiness of these first notations in the dark …


Paul Hammond


Action! The Overture


And when I film this body on the move, I feel the same pleasure I imagine Muybridge felt watching his galloping horse.

– Carax


In the Cannes press notes for Holy Motors, Carax explicitly invokes the 19th-century chronophotographic experiments of Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge as a vital historic precedent for understanding his own ‘man of the cinema’ – Lavant/Oscar – as he acts out and alternately embodies a series of pre-scripted ‘roles’ well into the Parisian night. Carax’s comparison is not unexpected, for Holy Motors opens with one of Marey’s musculature studies of a man in motion, while similar recreations of this pre-cinematic inheritance are also glimpsed throughout. By way of the cinema’s own technological ancestors, the overture of Holy Motors fuses our longstanding desire to animate the static image – as a dreaming of the cinema, before the fact – with the phenomenological lures of gesture, bodily comportment and kinesthetic action, especially insofar as these function as the motor for events yet to come.


As Carax observes, like those ‘athletes chronophotographed by Marey’, the sculpted physique of Lavant/Oscar is at the forefront of Holy Motors – oozing an insistent physicality and an arresting sense of energy and presence across the wildly disparate personas that make for a traversal of film history (beggar, monster, gangster, lover). For Carax, as for myself watching Holy Motors, it is action – the elusive magic of a ‘body on the move’ – that spurs the alchemical life-force of the cinema. Instead of the bodily pleasures of Muybridge’s galloping horse, however, Carax concludes with a scene of stretch limousines suddenly coming to life at the film’s close – recounting to us their own existential exhaustion and possible extinction.


While action clearly animates the mechanical object into life, liveliness and affective expressivity – like the overture, the garage is another of Carax’s explicit figurations for the motorial power and potency of the cinema – it is simultaneously tinged with the elegiac. As if all cinematic action is, once enacted, in the process of ghosting; fading away, forgotten, added to the stockpile of the past and oriented towards an uncertain future …


Saige Walton


Still Life


Holy Motors is a film about movement, a fact consecrated in its very title.


But what haunts me today in this film is stillness – in fact, one unnaturally frozen moment. When the sleeping man, played by Carax, wakes and finds a secret door in the wall (a wall that flashes me back to the birch forest of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), the door opens out on to a movie theatre. In one shot, we become the screen, and we look out into the audience. Mobile pools of light reflect from the screen on to the crowd, but the audience itself is utterly immobile, completely frozen.


In his fascinating 1989 essay ‘Du défilement au défilé' (translated as ‘From Movies to Moving’, ‘From Projector to Parade’ or ‘From Defilement to Filing Past’), Serge Daney notes that, in order for the public to perceive moving images, it had to be locked into place, made immobile, captured and fixed in a state that Pascal Bonitzer called ‘blocked vision’. For Daney, the audience needed just this ‘domestication’ in order to see and absorb the extraordinary varieties of movement of which cinema was capable.


If we were to track Daney’s notion through the history of modernist cinema, both of extended duration (Antonioni, Akerman, Tarr) and of challenging density (Godard, Makavejev, Marker), we could see, with particular clarity, the way this cinema strongly encourages an attitude of intense and motionless concentration in the spectator.


But Daney goes further, by hazarding a hypothesis: that if the history of cinema can be characterised by the gradual immobilisation of the spectator, we can also see a recent reversal: viewers are becoming more mobile (think of TV’s interrupted viewing), and images are becoming more immobile (for example, cinema as a shop window, presenting commodities to attract a consumer audience).


If this is true, the still audience in Holy Motors is two things. First, it is a throwback to the earlier, transfixed audience in thrall to a rich, complex, demanding cinema. But second, it is also us: a sisterhood and brotherhood of cinephiles (a word that could equally mean ‘lovers of movement’, if we recall its etymology) who express our cinephilia in movement, upon leaving the theatre: through writing, reading, conversing and gathering into international communities, like the one that has coalesced on this website in tribute to Holy Motors.


Girish Shambu


The Same Thing Behind the Scenes, As In Life


Holy Motors derives much of its power from the way that its overture and finale are placed as its grand bookends. Each act in between is its own beautiful piece – self-contained, almost solipsistic – but works best when slotted into place. As it opens, Carax himself wakes from slumber and an oceanic expanse of sound surrounds him, a soundscape reminiscent of Paris and its busy metropolitan streets, but with calming seagulls and lapping water redolent of the seaside. So, although Holy Motors opens in darkness, in a claustrophobic space, it does not define itself, or close itself off to anything. And it follows: Carax is not here to tell us a story, to make us follow a straight path or head down a narrative one-way street. Instead he drives us all over Paris, through different worlds and characters, inexhaustibly boundless.


As Carax walks around his room, he passes a gloomy forest painted on the walls – a thickness of slender, bare trees that extend into the two-dimensional distance. Its ghostly mist is at once daunting and enticing. He opens a door in the forest wall and walks through it, immediately entering a movie theatre – it is another kind of darkness, another forest perhaps, where an audience sits and is intrigued by a series of images emanating from elsewhere. Later, as Lavant/Oscar is sitting in a limousine being driven around Paris by Céline (Édith Scob), he tells her that he misses the forest. He has not had an appointment there for a while – but what exactly does he miss? Perhaps, speaking for Carax, he misses the cinema’s powerful mystique, its ability to invite him into the unknown and surprise him.


In Pola X, Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) is tempted by the forest, losing his way before his life completely changes direction. For Pierre, the forest serves as a gateway into a new state of being, beyond the stasis of family and responsibility. These two forests – dark, endless, unnavigable – could almost be the same space. In Holy Motors: beyond the forest painted on a wall is a cinema; this is a portal to a world of possibilities that the somnambulist spectators do not appreciate. It is more than obvious that the film is a most wonderful celebration of the glory of cinema, while also being a requiem for its demise. Monsieur Oscar laments: ‘Sometimes I, too, find it hard to believe in it all’. And still Carax makes it happen, and we believe it. If we do not believe that what we see in front of us is real, at least we know that it really belongs to the cinema, to its geniuses and champions – and that is just as important.


One of my favourite moments in Holy Motors occurs when Céline is escorting Monsieur Oscar to his final appointment. He hums the lyrics to ‘My Way,’ the song defiantly immortalised by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Sid Vicious with an undeniable slant of anarchism. The end is here, so now we face the final curtain. For a brief time, Céline sings along, her mouth shaping to form the song’s words, but making no sound. This brief moment expresses Carax’s impossibly chasmic beliefs regarding our involvement in the cinema: we are reaching the end, and are such slaves to it that we will go along with it, powerless – we, too, are subconsciously mouthing the words to a song. The end of Monsieur Oscar’s day, the end of Holy Motors, the end of cameras that were bigger than we are – and the end of something more intangible than all those things put together.


For his last appointment, Monsieur Oscar must return home to his ‘family’. His appointment portfolio directs him to a house, a wife, his children; when he gets there, Carax opens up a joke that we never realised we were in on. It’s like Nagisa Oshima does in Max, mon amour (1986), when Charlotte Rampling’s Margaret has an affair with Max, a chimpanzee. ‘It’s always fascinating to watch monkeys – it’s like catching sight of your own past in a mirror’, says Margaret’s husband Peter (Anthony Higgins), trying to accept Max as part of their lives. The interlacing of both these Parisian lives with humankind’s evolutionary and symbolic ancestors ties them all together, and leaves Holy Motors in a much more ambiguous position than it might otherwise seem. Evolution is only part of life, an ineluctable journey that projects constantly forwards, with the occasional default back to the past. We are living the same thing, over and over, changing with the times but still failing to realise the process. All moments are necessary. The world, our lives, travel in and out of spaces, emotions, pathways – through forests, oceans, and cities. When Carax walks into the cinema at the film’s beginning, there is a glowing neon sign SORTIE, leading to the exit. We can leave if we want. By the end, that option has gone. There is no exit left.


Eloise Ross


An Opening


I. In an early scene of Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006), the character played by Krzysztof Majchrzak stubbornly repeats: ‘I need an opening’. His attitude captures well my own attitude when confronted with works like Lynch’s, or Holy Motors. Films that declare they are reluctant to be interpreted but that, simultaneously, we cannot help but interpret – since they are full of possibilities that encourage us to do so. These are the films that exceed us. Their multiplicity is the sure sign of this – and perhaps that is exactly where their greatness lies. However, these are works that demand, even more fervently, that we gain entry to them from a small, intimate corner. And, if we can find that spot – that opening – then probably everything that the film is, or can be, will vanish before the experience, unique and secret, that this work gives us, and that we can give to it. All this explains why, in a film like Holy Motors – which is so full of sublime moments – it is the opening sequence that obsesses me the most.


Carax himself has remarked (in an interview with Eulàlia Iglesias in the November 2012 issue of Caiman) that it was Katerina Golubeva who gave him a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann to read; a story ‘in which the leading character discovers that his hotel room leads, through a secret door, to an opera theatre’. The story in question is 'Don Juan', and what Carax does not say in the interview is that the relationship between Hoffmann’s work and the opening sequence of his film is much deeper than this simple detail lets on. The principal character of ‘Don Juan’ is a traveller who, in the middle of the night, wakes up in his hotel room: a cry that announces the beginning of some celebration has disturbed his sleep. Strangely, he calls the waiter who informs him that his room connects, via a hidden door, to a passageway leading to a theatre balcony. On this very night, Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is being performed – so the waiter invites him to pass through the door and witness the event from seat number 23, reserved for distinguished guests.


Hoffmann’s tale is divided into three quite distinct parts. In the first of these, we encounter a detailed description of the emotions experienced by the hero as he observes what might be described as an ideal representation of Mozart’s opera: faithful to the spirit and to the original language of the work, musically sublime, and featuring a group of performers who fully embody their roles. During the performance, the hero feels a strange presence behind him; but he decides to ignore it and goes on, immersed in the pleasure that the opera gives him. However, at intermission (the entr’acte), something extraordinary happens: we discover that, during Act I, the actress playing Doña Ana has been, at once, both in the spectator box and on the stage. Speaking with her, the hero feels, for the first time in his life, that he is truly uncovering the work’s secrets. It is only then that the reader realises – also for the first time – that this traveler, of whom we know so little, is also himself a composer.


The second part of ‘Don Juan’ takes the form of a letter penned by the hero who, overwhelmed by the experience he has just been through, retires to a solitary spot and, by the light of twin candles, writes to his friend Teodoro. This letter is an interpretation of the essence of Mozart's work, of the profound intuition that our hero believes himself to have experienced, thanks to that ideal representation. When 2am arrives, the traveler ends his letter, and feels suddenly intoxicated by the scent of Doña Ana’s perfume. The third and final part of the story takes place a day later and offers a short Appendix in the form of a conversation, where we discover that the singer has died the previous night, at exactly 2am.


Doubtless, we can view the hero of this tale as an alter ego of its author (Hoffmann himself was a composer and music critic; before writing this story, he had studied Mozart – for whom he felt a genuine passion – and had attended various performances of Don Giovanni in German). The fact that only the hero of the tale appreciates a representation that the rest of the audience rated negatively, suggests that Hoffmann saw himself as the ideal – and perhaps sole – spectator capable of grasping the ultimate meaning of a work that is beyond everyone else. Hence the personal interpretation he makes of the opera, far from the general idea that the majority audience would form. (For more on the Hoffmann/’Don Juan’ relation, see Ricarda Schmidt, ‘How to Get Past Your Editor: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Don Juan” as a Palimpsest’, in R. Langford [ed.], Textual Intersections: Literature, History and the Arts in Nineteenth Century Europe, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009).


II. Holy Motors’ first sequence opens on a shot that lasts a bit more than half a minute. In it, we see a packed movie theatre – but the audience is asleep, or with its eyes closed. On the soundtrack we hear street noises, a door that opens and, after a brief silence, the terrified voice of a man who shouts three times: ‘No!’ Then, the noise of a gunshot, the flash of which momentarily illuminates the spectators’ faces. But they do not seem to feel anything at all: they remain in a frightening state of immobility, as if they are statues. On an upper level, there is a man (Carax), who has awoken in the middle of the night in his hotel room. He lights a cigarette, illuminates the room and dons his dark glasses. Film sounds are clearly heard in his room, and he begins to move in their direction, trying to figure out where they are coming from. He stops against a wall that is covered with wallpaper simulating a forest full of bare, thin trees. The man inspects the wall and discovers a lock. His ring finger is attached, as if by prosthesis, to a key that unlocks this door. Then he pushes hard against the door, breaking open an entry. He passes through a corridor lined with red walls – followed by his faithful dog. An emergency exit light flashes in front of him. He opens a second door, climbs a set of stairs, and emerges in the empty amphitheatre section of a cinema. From there, he looks at the spectators in the audience. A child and a dog slowly moving down the aisle seem to be the only visible signs of life.


This sequence of Holy Motors presents a situation that is quite similar to Hoffmann’s ‘Don Juan’, but subject to small, critical variations: the theatre has become a cinema, and the person who crosses the threshold is not a privileged spectator, but the director himself. Even though we never see the images projected onto the screen, we know that it is Carax’s film because the sounds we hear (lapping waves, birds, a horn) are stretched out to cover the beginning of the next scene – the first in which Lavant appears. However, in the opening sequence, the emphasis is not on the representation (as it will be for the rest of the film), but the spectators. From his elevated position, Carax takes in an audience that appears totally inert. It is a truly terrifying image: a mass that is motionless, inexpressive, devoid of any emotion. Hoffmann’s dream of an ideal representation has here been transformed into nightmare, and the romantic communion between spectator and artwork that was at the heart of the original tale has been replaced by the mise en scène of an amputated exchange.


As in Hoffmann’s story, with the actress who plays Doña Ana, in Holy Motors the only moment in which we witness the life of Mr Oscar beyond the various characters he plays is in the ‘intermission’. But, before we figure this out, how many times do we imagine that we are seeing his real life? Carax has not only made a film about the beauty of gesture; he has made a film in which the beauty of that gesture is equivalent to its truth. This is the fundamental emotion that Holy Motors stirs in us. Just like in ‘Don Juan’, the link here between actor and character is absolute: the wrenching suicide, the irreversibility of death, the intensity of the father-daughter relationship, the shed tears … If all this moves us, it is because of the burden of truth it carries. Carax has, in effect, made a film on the beauty of gesture, and has delegated to Lavant the task of driving it, gloriously. But he has also filmed the awful, terrifying reverse shot. And, in a moving gesture of honesty, he decided that he should himself be the star of this opening sequence. For, after all this exertion, irrational and disproportionate, in pursuit of beauty, how can he avoid the fear that there will be nobody to watch it?


Carax, romantic film director par excellence, has dedicated his film to Katerina Golubeva, and declared (in the Caiman interview): ‘We make the films for the dead, but we show them to the living’ – a sign of his profoundly Garrelian side. Like Inland Empire, Holy Motors is a film that functions as a passage between two universes. A film on cinema as a vehicle of transport; and on the spectator as an essential part of this mechanism. After all, Carax gets to superimpose the green letters of his film’s title on the bodies of those zombiefied viewers: a gesture at once both ironic and hopeful.


Cristina Álvarez López


(translated from the Spanish by Adrian Martin)




In cinema, a narrative premise is usually something that you like (or not) for its ability to get everything else in a film moving. It is (at best) the seed, the matrix, the germ of an idea. But it is not the film. In Holy Motors, by contrast, the premise, all by itself, provides endless fuel for wondering and speculating and figuring. Carax may well have arrived at it through a David Lynch-style (day)dreaming or free association; however it came about, it ended up gaining an hallucinatory hyper-logic that is unique in cinema.


It resembles Raúl Ruiz’s oft-played twist on the Groundhog Day (1993) idea, in his films including The Blind Owl (1987) and Three Lives and Only One Death (1996): you will live an infinity of lives, of parallel stories and worlds, all in one momentous day – but then you are condemned to live that very same, accursed day all over again, for every day of your life. Wonder and surprise thus do the Moebius Strip into misery and banality: it is the perfect Ruizian equation/dialectic of Mystery and Ministry, one always, eventually, giving birth to the other. Or, in Holy Motors’ terms, and its magnificent final song by Gérard Manset: to live will always be to relive.


The fictional premise is beautifully minimal and elusive. We gather that Mr Oscar is performing, always performing. We listen to a discussion about small digital cameras, and thus deduce that there is filming, and some sort of edited projection or live broadcasting going on (the EDtv [1999] or The Truman Show [1998] idea) – a Reality Show extravaganza of some kind. We assume there are spectators for this show – those transfixed creatures discovered by Carax in the prologue, maybe? (Shades here of Paul Bartel’s 1968 The Secret Cinema, remade in 1986 for TV’s Amazing Stories.) But no cameras, edit suites or audiences are ever shown to us. In our placid state (it is an oddly quiet, calm, non-hysterical film), we never even look for them; this is not a Haneke-style mind-game of impossible, hidden camera-positions, as in Caché (2005). Those cameras constitute the invisible outside to the story – like, again, the occult (and occulted) Mabuse-style controllers behind many a Ruiz tale, or the scientific surveillance teams at each further-out ring of the narrative situation in a J.G. Ballard short story. The one place where Oscar could be perfectly easily surveilled and recorded – inside the techno-limousine – appears, paradoxically, to be the one haven where he is not performing, or being seen (and this is what creates the tender, intimate, private bond with his driver – who, in a striking inversion of normal logic, puts on a mask to return to her own real life!). But then, how does the mysterious, sinister Mr Big figure of Michel Piccoli get in and out of this limo?


If you’ve ever wondered what an anamorphic fold is in film narrative, here it is: Mr Oscar begins by farewelling his family. Ordinary family, ordinary scene. Near the end of the film, the chauffeur gives him his dossier for the final appointment of the night: another family, a new family – with the identities of its members almost cornily hidden from us by an obvious sleight-of-hand in the shot. When we reach that family – the perfectly blissful nuclear family unit of monkeys – we realise that the first, seemingly real, personal and biological family of Oscar was not that at all, that each night he beds down with a different wife (animal or human, no matter) and in the morning bids adieu to new kids. The initial scene of commonplace human/social intercourse unfolds, at the end, its monstrous – or rather, indifferent – truth, its exposed double: every father is a fake, and every family is a let’s-pretend simulation (by anyone at all, whatever their species), a hollow shell. Suddenly – for the first time in a long time, and far better than in Zizek – we understand again what ideology is and how it interpellates us all.


But hang on. It could be, according to the open logic allowed by the film, that one of these families – one or the other, human or animal – could indeed be ‘his’. (A kid in the opening, after all, gleefully exhorts his Dad to ‘work hard’.) This equivocation sets up many delicious ambiguities in the film – and it is fascinating to gauge, in reviews and conversations, how keen viewers are to pinpoint the ‘real’ moments of Oscar’s existence. So, some assume that the scene with the teenage girl is an authentic family scene (even though Oscar wears a wig for it, as he dresses in costume for everything!). What about the seemingly spontaneous moment when our strange hero spots ‘himself’ as the banker, goes berserk and tries to kill him(self), terrorist-style? And the sublime accordion ‘intermission’ in Saint-Merri Church – is this really a moment ‘off’, or only ever ‘on’?


We must then begin to question the status of every other character we see, according to this logic: we come to know that the woman with whom he plays the ‘dying old man’ scene is another actor in the generalised spectacle-game, with her own ledger of appointments. But what of the teenage girl? Eva Mendes? Kylie Minogue/Eva/Jean too, is an avowed player, being chauffeured in a mirroring limousine – and might that not mean that, when she falls (unseen and unheard) to her death, she is just faking, part of yet another elaborate mise en scène? Oscar himself, after all, seemingly dies and resurrects two or three times (the number is fuzzy because, in the meantime, he splits into two characters in the shady warehouse scene, just as he does in the banker-attack – and which one of him, exactly, stumbles out of that warehouse?) – thanks to the marvellous ellipse-cuts that literally pick him up and send him on his way to the next scene, the next appointment.


And don’t forget the cars, those ‘holy motors’. They start yapping in the finale, but that must mean, retroactively, they have been sentient beings for the whole movie! Remember, two limos crash to initiate the reunion of Oscar and Eva … Cars, by the way, are having a truly remarkable time in the movies of 2012. At the start of Cronenberg’s curious Cosmopolis – which could almost be spliced to the end of Holy Motors – the affectless hero actually wonders, after a loving tracking shot along a line of limos, where the cars go at night and what they do. And in João Pedro Rodrigues’ short Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, another line of (more ordinary) automobiles comes loudly to life whenever a zombie-like survivor of the night-before merely floats by. Animism is a contagious force in contemporary cinema …


Adrian Martin




Every film organises circulations of images: but to orchestrate these circulations in circuits, to think their variety, to work their junctions, eurhythmics, and short-circuits – to convey their differential, opposing and indeed disparate energies – constitutes the beginning of a poetics in the formal sense of the word: an art of the assembly line. The history of French cinema is punctuated by masterpieces that are poetic in a dual sense: both structural and enchanting. Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926), the first and most experimental of the great city symphonies, is the direct ancestor of Holy Motors: a journey-critique, twenty-four hours in Paris, which begins by deploying the plastic arsenal cinema has at its disposal for destroying bourgeois clichés, then sets out in search of the most exciting, kinetic situations (carnival, dance hall, embrace, gestures of work …), and culminates in the moment where the 35mm film self-destructs, as proof of the violent death of the protagonist – just like, nearly a century later, the way the mass of pixels collapses in on itself at Père Lachaise in Holy Motors.


Between these twin tracts, in 1950, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour devotes itself to the representation of psychological images, inventing an economy that avoids exchange in order to develop other types of traffic. A voyeuristic warden, a lecherous old prisoner, a frustrated young prisoner, a population of captives in their cells transformed into reliquaries of desire; spurts of looks, of beatings and, above all, of fantasies: prison liberates the images. Un chant d’amour weaves three figurative regimes: realistic approximation (the prison filmed/treated in gestures and fragments/sections/pieces); fantasy as the gearshift/transmission of scenarios (the linear, rustic reverie of the prisoner); fantasy as fetishisation of a phenomenon (the fragmentary, erotic visions of the warden). Thanks to this heterogeneity, the masculine body multiplies its modes of appearance; it occurs sometimes in beautiful form and sometimes in prosaic physiology, in verist bas-relief or dreamlike silhouette. But these three regimes (realistic construction, idyllic fancy and colossal fixation) – apparently hermetic and opposed – more secretly capture, divert and infiltrate each other, entangling themselves and causing narrative short-circuits.


By abolishing all usual distinctions between psyches, between the one and the many, between the fragment and the totality, the underground economy that structures the desiring fury of Un chant d’amour prefigures a definition of the human being given in a short text by Genet from 1967, the magnificent title of which refers to the destiny of the stereotypes depicted in Cavalcanti’s film: ‘What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet’. Triggered by the mystery of a blank look in the enclosed space of a railway car, Genet’s text summarises the dramaturgical protocol of Holy Motors:


  In the world there exists, and there has only ever existed, one man. He is in each of us in entirety; thus he is ourselves. Each is the other and all others. Except that a phenomenon, for which I do not even know the name, seems to infinitely divide this single man, splits him into the accidents of appearance, and renders each of the fragments foreign to ourselves.    

Nicole Brenez


(translated from French by Felicity Chaplin;
originally appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 682, October 2012, p. 84.
Reprinted with the author’s permission)


Faces Are Masks Anyway


1. ‘Faces are masks anyway’, wrote Cornell Woolrich in Deadline at Dawn (1944).


2. There is a lot of talk today about ‘stolen identities’, but is there really anything to steal, beyond the paperwork?


3. There is nothing remarkable per se about an actor playing many parts in a film; Buster Keaton, Alec Guinness and Tony Randall are all precedents that must have inspired Carax and Lavant.


3. Is Holy Motors really considered ‘difficult’? For anyone who has a sense of our culture, wherein each individual self has, at every moment, to be laid out on a platter ready for imminent media-consumption, there are so many emotional and intellectual entry points into the film. As for the film's ‘meaning’, Carax has been so beautifully articulate about his intentions, there is little more to add.


4. What might be difficult about Holy Motors is to accept the thought that Carax might finally have been able to shoot a feature only because of the general 1980s revival in popular culture.


5. Carax is the great filmmaker of exhaustion. From the outset, his concern has been to counteract the forces that produce blockages in bodies and that wind down the world's machinery – his characters and their milieux have always veered between the poles of frozen and exaggerated movement.


In Holy Motors this problem is treated in the context of today's CGI-driven cinema, hence its nostalgic tone. As Carax says: ‘The film is a form of science fiction, in which humans, beasts and machines are on the verge of extinction – “sacred motors” linked together by a common fate and solidarity, slaves to an increasingly virtual world’.


This is most evident in the motion capture segment. At first it recalls the ‘Modern Love’ sequence in Mauvais sang (1986), wherein Alex is saved from petrification by the ‘movement of world’ that carries him along when he can no longer propel himself; his body and the world are simultaneously re-ignited so that we, too, can know (along with Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis, 1944) ‘how it feels when the universe reels’. In Holy Motors' replay of the ‘Modern Love’ sequence, Lavant is on a treadmill, out of breath, gamely running on the spot but without producing any real movement, the green screen behind him merely providing a pathetic simulation of the movement of world – there is no longer a passage to the ecstatic transcendence to which the sequence led in the earlier film. The un-earthly speed of the dispositif sends Lavant tumbling to the ground.


6. ‘After all, can we really use technicist terms to describe camera movements in animated or CGI films that have become metaphorical? In a live-action film it sort of makes sense to talk of a tracking shot, because that was what was used to achieve the movement we observe. But in a CGI-driven film, where the whole visual enactment was computer-generated, it might look like a tracking shot to us as we view it, but has nothing to do with a tracking shot in actuality. Can we still use film language that has become metaphorical – where a shot is like a tracking shot?’ (Tony McKibbin)


7. The contemporary film that Holy Motors seems, above all others, to be in dialogue with, is the criminally underrated Mister Lonely (2007) by Harmony Korine.


8. The delicious moment late in the film when the fake starry sky from Boy Meets Girl (1984) seems to reappear in the overhead shot of the Limo. Until you realise that it has been there all along, since the moment it clung to the suit Lavant donned for the motion capture sequence.


9. Carax has often been termed a Mannerist filmmaker, for taking cinema history rather than life as his source of reference. It is partly true, and Holy Motors continues to explore the Mannerist aesthetic. The Mannerist Carax does not just reference Marey, Franju, Demy and so on; he must re-work their images and stagings. In this, Carax is like a musician sampling another’s song, but creating something entirely new from a mere detail in the original. Therefore, he is not fatalistically pointing to a crisis, to the exhaustion of new cinematic forms in our Dantesque CGI hell, but offering a highly creative response to it. ‘Pour la beauté du geste’. Et du mouvement.


Fergus Daly


Mixed Pairs



In the middle of an abandoned, half-built shopping mall, a man sits fishing. Around him, the bones of the building sit exposed to the elements, weathering, wasting, an empire decaying pre-emptively. He won’t catch any fish.


In an abandoned department store, a man meets a woman he used to know. Remnants from that past era – is it our era? – litter the set, sunk in dust and cobwebs like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.



An orchestra of deranged accordionists screech through a labyrinthine set of stone passageways, lurching toward the camera and passing and coming round again in a ferocious wheeze. The emotional intensity of the original blues takes a physical turn, as the squeeze boxes gasp to keep up with the fire of notes.


A magnificent water dragon frolics in a skyrise water tower. Or rather, he is part man, part dragon, unmistakably a man dressed up as a dragon. Narrative is suspended. The man performs dragon and croons a song of love and forgetting.



Can a man in a coma have an erection? It’s a thought that doesn’t worry one devoted mother. As her son lies unconscious, she jerks him off in a frantic gesture of incestuous compassion.


Merde is happy. He has a beautiful model to play with. His powerful bent erection springs forth, and like a child or a kitten, he rests his head in her lap.



A man wakes up in a room lined with intricate forest wallpaper. He feels his way across the forest. There is a door. He passes through into a huge old cinema filled with sleeping people. The screen lights their faces. Are they dreaming the same dream?


A woman, bent-backed, climbs with excruciating slowness, up the stairs of an empty cinema. Her walking stick clicks against the concrete. Click. Click. Click. Click.


Sarinah Masukor


Part Two of Hail Holy Motors can be read here.    

from Issue 3: Masks


© Individual contributors September–December 2012;
LOLA for the translations and the complete assemblage December 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.