Conversations about film
September 5, 2021
Directed by Leos Carax, 2012
Jim Wilson: Andrew, it’s great having you back. You were telling me that New Zealand was going back into lockdown because of Delta. How is that playing out?
Andrew Hutchinson: Hey, Jim, it’s a pleasure to be back. It’s been a while. Yes, we’d managed to duck Delta until a couple of weeks ago, and now we’re trying to eliminate it while we get our vaccinations up to speed. Time will tell if we can. Things are a little precarious, but the early signs are encouraging. How have things been with you?
Jim: Well enough. I’ve recently gone into business for myself, after 35 years working for someone else. It depresses me that the only way I can push back against a diseased business culture is to become a capitalist myself. All that aside, it’s been a revelation in terms of considering my worth, my skills, and my values, as they are.
But it’s all, in the end, in the service of film appreciation…
You and I first agreed to discuss Holy Motors, then I proposed the idea of doing Annette instead, since its release coincided with our talk window. But then Delta, and shut downs, and you couldn’t see it. It’s on Amazon here. That doesn’t work over there? I’m playing the intentional dumb American here.
Andrew: Congratulations on taking the self-employment plunge. You’re a braver man than me. I hope it works out for you, mate.
It’s a bit unfortunate that New Zealand’s been open for business for most of the past year while film distribution has stalled, and then just as interesting movies like Annette are about to be released, we’re locked out of seeing them. Streaming services here are limited. Amazon’s only dipping a toe in the water, while the Criterion Channel, Hulu and HBO Max are not even doing that. I’m left with Netflix, which is mostly dross, and Mubi, which is the only subscription option I routinely use. So long answer short, I have to be patient or illegal, and I choose patient.
As keen as I am to see Annette, I’m actually delighted to have the opportunity to discuss Holy Motors in some depth. In my book it’s one of the rare modern films that’s genuinely unconventional and open to diverse interpretation. It’s not easy to get a clear reading on it, and so I’m looking forward to exchanging a few theories over the course of this discussion. How do you approach a film like Holy Motors? You’ve seen it a few times by now, right?
Jim: Twice, some parts a third time. I approach Holy Motors pretty literally, really. Carax films never strike me as particularly obscure, but just singular, matchless, and idiosyncratic. I think his films can be taken entirely at face value and left at that, if you prefer. But emphasizing certain elements of the film can shift, or extend, the meaning of the whole. This is especially true with Annette. Everyone talks about how weird it is, but that’s just decoration. At root, it’s a very simple story, as is Holy Motors. But you can isolate, and elevate, distinct elements of it, and the whole thing opens up, or expands. I personally don’t find the basic story of Annette to be at all compelling, so not worth much contemplation, while Holy Motors is endlessly fascinating.
How do you arrive at it?
Andrew: Yes, it is endlessly fascinating. I’ve seen it three times now and it’s grown on me each time. I think, like you suggest, it’s quite accessible in so far as it’s got a straight forward enough premise, and its structure is spelled out near the start. Also, it can be enjoyed straight-up for its genre-hopping freshness and its remarkable central performance by Denis Lavant. I’ve read many opinions that say something along the lines of “that was cool, but I’ve no idea what it means” and I do recall my initial reaction was something similar. I’m still not sure I’ve got a clear reading on it, but it seems to me there are some heavy themes lurking behind its singularly diverting surface. Things like the artifice of modern life, cinema’s decline and technology’s role in both. As enjoyable as it is, I find it a sobering watch.
Shall we dive in?
Jim: It’s a theme that opens Carax’s last two films, which your question encapsulates. When you watch Annette, you’ll get the significance of the question “Shall we start?” It’s also describes the beginning of Holy Motors, a meta reflection on how films begin, and the creative process from which they arrive. What functions do the start of a movie perform?
So yeah, let’s do it.
We start with excerpts from an old silent film, of a naked actor bounding around on a stage, followed by a shot of an audience in a darkened theater, seen from the screen’s point of view. Notably, all the viewers have their eyes closed. Cut then to Carax himself rising from a bed in what feels like a hotel room, maybe an apartment. When he passes by the window, we get our first practical information about the world of the film. We’re obviously in a future time, since the lights of descending aircraft in the night are not of any recognizable pattern or configuration. Carax then enters the forest of a wall by using his chrome key finger to open a secret door, which leads to the rear exit of the balcony section of the theater we just saw from the opposite end. What appears to be some kind of walking robot baby and two mastiffs descend the theater’s aisles. Cut then to a young girl seated behind a bubble window, which seems like a direct reference to a lens, or eye. The girl is actually Carax’s daughter, Nastya Golubeva Carax, whose mother Yekaterina Golubeva starred in Carax’s 1999 film Pola X.
What we know for certain it that we’re in some vague time in the future, in a world where cinema and imagination are essential. What do you find in that opening sequence that’s significant, or amusing?
Andrew: You asked what functions the start of a movie perform? Where many conventional films might introduce character, or provide some backstory, or maybe tease a little about what’s to come, the beginning of Holy Motors does none of that. What it does, I think, is introduce some of its themes and its tone. There’s a little bit of establishment, as you say, by identifying us in what appears to be the not-too-distant future, but otherwise, extremely little of what we see has explicit reference to what will be unveiled over the next nearly two hours. And yet this opening seems to offer some of the keys to unlocking what’s to come.
The opening silent clips from the work of Étienne-Jules Marey takes us back to the origins of cinema, and the sight of the small child toddling down the aisle towards the screen (with a bit of a Denis Lavant-like gait, it could be argued) ushers in the twin journeys – through life and through cinema – that Holy Motors will traverse. The turning of the camera on the apparently sleeping audience feels like an accusation against our modern disengagement with the past. But it might also be a recognition of the relationship between film and dreams, and this is further echoed when we watch Carax wake up, and I wonder if we are meant to read it as if we are entering his dream. Certainly, his presence in his own film suggests we are witnessing something of the creative process, with the director unlocking the door and arriving into the theatre where he is set above and apart from the audience.
For me the most significant effect of the film’s opening is the weariness that hangs over everything. The audience have their eyes shut and may well be asleep. Carax wakes up and looks exhausted. He appears to be in an airport hotel room, one of the loneliest places on earth. The scene could be a dream or at least the intersection between life and dreams, through a kind of wearied, even despondent imagination. The image that follows of the young girl against the window is innocent enough, but it hits me emotionally as if she is sealed away from the nature we see reflected in the glass. This separation from nature – the sense of having lost something integral – repeats itself throughout the rest of the film.
So for me this is a tantalising, deeply strange opening. Its ambiguity opens up my receptors for what’s to follow, and it’s at this point we get our first sight of Denis Lavant’s character, Monsieur Oscar. The first we see of him is as a wealthy middle-aged businessman, leaving his modernist mansion to the sound of his family’s fond farewells, shuffling past his heavily armed bodyguards, and arriving at a white, stretch limousine, where he greets his chauffeur, Céline (Edith Scob). If this moment was the opening scene in the film you’d think, with its evident wealth and the presence of guns, that we’re being set up for a Bond-like thriller, but no. We’re about to have the rug pulled from under our feet. Jim?
Jim: Hm? Ah… I like your reading of the opening, especially Carax’s dreaming.
We soon discover that Mr. Oscar is an actor, a performer, a celebrity. He’s hired by an agency to perform roles. What’s unique is these roles are performed in public spaces. I don’t know about you, but my first question is for whom? For whom is he performing? Me, you, the regular movie-watching public? The extras we see at the perimeter of the frame? Aside from the obvious one, where are the cameras? Or is it more like open-air theater? Of course, there are no answers, or few, but I think Carax intends for you to ask those questions, to carry them through the film as a frame of reference to help sort out this world.
With all the ostentatious pomp of a mature celebrity, Mr. Oscar is chauffeured around Paris in an obscenely large white limousine, from which he prepares himself for each appointment. During an early phone conversation in the car with someone named Serge, about what sounds like financial details, and considerations about security, Mr. Oscar observes, “We get the blame for their pain. It whips people up. A sign of the times.” Performance, in this world, is a high-stakes and perilous pursuit. That said, it’s an observation easily applied to celebrity culture today. But in the world of Holy Motors, for whose benefit does Mr. Oscar perform?
Andrew: For whose benefit? It certainly doesn’t appear to be for his own. Oscar is performing every moment he’s outside the limo. The limo is his only sanctuary, where we get a glimpse of the person behind the mask. And he seems exhausted and unhappy by being in the constant spotlight. He must front up to appointments, one after another, and he’s got nine slated for this given day in what poses for his life. So, if he’s not doing it for himself, then who is he doing it for?
You’re right there are no answers but plenty of questions. My interpretation runs along parallel metaphorical tracks. Firstly, by situating us in the future, Carax allows us to extend the trajectory of our current technologies and obsessions. Where once cameras were few and large and obvious, over time becoming ubiquitous, small and handheld, now perhaps they are simply everywhere and so tiny as to be invisible. And just as phones and social media have infiltrated every waking moment of our modern lives, exposing us to the gaze and critical appraisal of the wider world, in Carax’s near future we’ve lost any semblance of control – we can no longer turn off our phones and feeds. Under this interpretation, Oscar is the embodiment of our depressing, exhausting, “always on” culture. He’s presented as a professional performer, but it’s not too difficult to extend what he does to the way we’re becoming less authentic by having to constantly perform for the all-seeing world.
But that doesn’t even begin to explain who is hiring Oscar and for whose benefit. At one point, later in the film, Oscar is visited in the limo by Michel Piccoli’s character, credited as L’homme a la tache de vin, who appears to be some type of boss figure. Piccoli questions whether Oscar’s heart is still in his performance, so it’s clear enough there’s a literal transaction being undertaken here. And their conversation suggests there is an audience, even if they are increasingly disinterested. I wonder if Carax is commenting on Film’s decline via his own struggles with getting to make films that catch something of the spirit of early cinema.
The appointments (note the corporate language) that Oscar is given are all sketches loosely tied to well-trodden genres. It’s like we’re seeing the tawdry illusion of commercial cinema stripped bare. We might intuit from Oscar’s weariness, that he’s performing the same roles repeatedly. He longs for an “appointment in the forest”, but what he gets are vignettes of fantasy or extremity – little snippets of existence made large through cinema’s tendency to exaggerate or escape reality.
So, to comprehensively not answer your question, I don’t know who Oscar performs for. You said up front you approach Holy Motors pretty literally, and as you can see, I’m approaching it fairly metaphorically, but isn’t it great how Carax’s approach allows for some diverse interpretations? Do you want to talk more about that, or shall we dive into the appointments themselves?
Jim: Perhaps I should clarify. I think Carax’s films can be taken literally, as a starting point, though clearly they operate in a heavily metaphorical domain. What else is Holy Motors other than a giant metaphor? What I mean is the components, the bits that make up the underlying world, are empirical enough to be taken literally. The operations to which those components are put to service are another thing entirely. I don’t think there’s a literal audience for Mr. Oscar’s work, any more than there’s a literal production company with a logo and multiple floors of office space that hires him. I ask because, like I said, I think Carax wants us to ask those very things. Not to arrive at some concrete answer, but as avenues to better explore the metaphors.
You made me realize I enjoy the scenes in the car somewhat more than the appointments themselves. Like you say, all the appointments are concentrated examples of the mediocre film fare that defines much of the industry. Poverty porn, computer-generated sex fantasies, teens and parents talking past one another, death-bed dramas, and lost-love lamentations, Carax lampoons them all. There is an imbalance to them, though, which I’d love to hear you talk about as we go along here, if you have thoughts on it. Some have real heart and some do not. Besides the obvious reasons, I’m curious how you see the appointments as a whole, with relation to each other.
But let’s start with, but not remain limited to, the “Mr. Merde” appointment. It’s the one that most eludes me (which means it’s probably the most obvious). Talk about the Gollum and his captive princess. Are there themes in “Mr. Merde” that are shared with other appointments? I know it comes from a character Carax first developed for Tokyo!, an anthology film he shared with Gondry and Bong, which I failed to watch as homework for this talk. I suspect it’s a character Carax had more invested in than most of the others. There’s a complexity in that story I don’t sense in the others.
Andrew: Ah, yes, Mr Merde! Prior to this appointment we’ve seen Mr Oscar transform from a powerful businessman into a hunchbacked old beggar woman, and then again into a motion capture body suit, in which he’s tasked to perform combat acrobatics, and then indulge in some simulated serpent sex with an ultra-bendy woman. But nothing quite prepares us for the appearance of Mr Merde, a kind of cross between an elfin vagrant and an urban sewer monster.
I think in this appointment Carax is taking on horror movies, but the horror is presented as farce. It involves, amongst other things, Mr Merde head-butting and then trampling over a blind man; biting off the “air quote” fingers of a vacuous assistant to an American fashion photographer named Harry T-Bone; and then kidnapping his statuesque model, played by Eva Mendes, first by licking her armpit into submission and then by slinging her over his shoulder and carrying her to his underground lair. It’s all fabulously bizarre and unpredictable stuff and becomes even more so when – defying expectation – Mr Merde proceeds to cover up her semi-nakedness, perhaps as a dig by Carax at modern cinema’s prudishness and propensity for self-censorship. But that’s short lived as Mr Merde then strips off his own clothes to reveal his erect penis, before tenderly lying down on Eva Mendes’ lap while she sings him a lullaby. The whole sequence is like a giant provocation, but played as a comedy, perhaps to call out the ludicrousness of what mostly passes these days as “shocking cinema”. My favourite moment comes at the very end, when the scene seems to take on an unexpected painterly quality as if we’ve stepped away from the appointment’s chaotic outrage into something approaching the Old Masters.
Having tried to describe it, I still can’t read too much into it. As I mentioned before, each of the appointments seem to approximate well-trodden genres and dramatic tropes. Individually they are entertaining little piss-takes, which occasionally conjure moments of genuine pathos, while showing off Denis Lavant’s remarkable acting. But each appointment amounts to very little of substance taken on their own. They’re like diverting mini exercises in narrative compression, or else ironic deconstructions of the artifice of cinematic emotional button pressing. And yet, taken as an anarchic whole, they amount to a radical form of storytelling that I think is aimed at the bankruptcy of modern cinema and life. I think one of the clues to this lies in the film’s “intermission”. But before I go way off script, can I turn your questions back on you? What do you make of the Mr Merde appointment? There’s a lot going on in it, that’s for sure. Do you think it means much on its own, or only in its relationship to other appointments or in the context of the whole film?
Jim: I honestly have no idea what’s going on with the Merde appointment. To try and glean a little more of Carax’s intent, in order to answer your question, I did, after all, watch the middle section of Tokyo! It’s not helpful. I interpret the Merde appointment less as a poke at the horror genre, and more like some modernized bit of folklore about some misunderstood creature of the underworld. In Tokyo!, he’s effectively an anarcho-terrorist whose unabashed misanthropy earns him as many worshippers as haters. He reflects peoples’ hopes and fears back at them. It’s an obvious commentary on the eternal power of nihilism to give voice to the disaffected. I do appreciate the fact that he eats flowers and money, both of which are considered sacrosanct. But I don’t sense that the Merde of Tokyo! is how Merde works in Holy Motors. So no, I still don’t get the Merde appointment. And it feels like granting it undue emphasis to give it much more consideration.
One detail I did notice about the cemetery Mr. Merde invades is how the headstones all read some variation of “Visit my website,” which is very funny. The internet provides immortality to the dead. It seems to have less to do with the Mr. Merde story and is more a part of the film’s broader themes about technology.
I want you to talk about the appointments in as general or specific a way as you wish, and I’ll give you my thoughts in return. I’m especially eager to hear your thoughts on the intermission, or “interval”.
Andrew: I hadn’t noticed that about the headstones. That’s brilliant, and vibes neatly with the way the film replaces the act of living with an artificially simulated performance.
If, as I suspect, Holy Motors is about our struggle to thrive in the modern world, it is equally, I think, about cinema’s struggle to survive as an art form. The way Mr. Oscar is trapped in a repetitive grind of performances mirrors the way the aesthetic and expressive creativity of cinema has been progressively corrupted by the corporate patents of banality. As a mirror on our lives, cinema is cracked: fantasy abounds, and reality is post-truth; and life has become little more than a series of sketches uploaded onto social media. Holy Motors takes us into the gutted buildings and gutted lives of wearied people acting out their days. We are all performers now, living in the image of cinema’s memory, in the broken reflections of its past roles. And we have little control over the scripts we act – performing to the expectation of our brand identities – performing scripts that wallpaper over the desperation of our lives. We’re left with just the fading facsimile of our dreams to cling onto.
At first the appointments are kind of thrilling. There’s the element of surprise. But then the weariness sets in. By the end of the film, Mr. Oscar is exhausted and despondent, and yet he perseveres like a professional. Two-thirds of the way through the film, Michel Piccoli’s character asks him why he continues? Mr. Oscar’s noble reply is “the beauty of the act”, as if he’s remembering how it used to be, recalling better times.
Denis Lavant is a performer who might be the closest we have to a modern-day silent movie star. He brings a Buster Keaton-like physicality and vulnerability without the need for words. While some of his appointments contain dialogue, they are led first and foremost by his ability to physically metamorphose. His performative talent is a direct reminder of the magic of early cinema when words were relegated to occasional title cards and filmmakers had to invent a brand-new cinematic language to convey thrill and emotion. Occasionally, Carax inserts brief, flickering extracts from pioneering silent films, and the effect is electric, like the injection of a sudden memory or dream that transports us back to another time when things were different – back to when cinema was fresh and still capable of magic.
I think the film’s interlude provides another example of Carax looking back to the magic of silent cinema. It’s announced by the word “ENTRACTE” scribbled on some sheet music, which immediately recalls the 1924 short film of the same name by René Clair. That film was an exuberant, avant-garde, Dadaist experiment, created for the interval of a Parisian ballet. Holy Motors’ interval brings, by far, the most joyous burst of energy to the film, with Mr. Oscar leading a band of accordionists, percussionists, and guitarists through a church in a high tempo musical number. It stands out against the weariness and artifice of the appointments that surround it. At the end, Mr. Oscar even cracks a smile.
I might be going out on an enormous limb here, but I think the reference to Clair’s Entr’acte invites us to consider the Dadaist spirit that Carax brings to Holy Motors. Wikipedia suggests the Dada movement consisted of “artists who rejected the logic, reason and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works.” Now doesn’t that read like a manifesto for the Mr. Merde section, and indeed for Holy Motors taken as a whole?
Jim: Your knowledge of early cinema far overshadows my own, but you’re right, Lavant does have that very physically expressive style of performing, which also contains a deeply introspective, or self-reflective, component to it. He doesn’t say much, but it’s never difficult to infer what he’s thinking.
My familiarity with Dadaism is restricted mainly to rock music, namely the early British psychedelic era, with bands like the early Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. Robert Wyatt, a hero of mine, was an avowed Dadaist, and Communist. So yes, I agree, Dadaism describes much of Holy Motors to a tee, and has, no doubt, a lot to do with why it resonates with me so much.
When I think back on all the appointments, for some reason the one that comes up first is the father-daughter exchange in the red car. Well, I guess I should admit that the most memorable of all the appointments, for me, is the motion capture sequence, just because it’s so fucking cool, though it’s little more than a visual spectacle. But there’s something about that little scene between young Angèle and her father that’s lodged firmly in my memory. It feels counterintuitive, that a father would be upset with his daughter for lying about being popular at a party, when in fact she was hiding in the bathroom the whole time. I love that little glimpse we get of Angèle at the party, sprinkling glitter on herself as she prepares for her lie, before cutting to her getting in her father’s car. Ultimately, her punishment for lying, her father tells her, is to live with herself as she is, to live with her truth, which she hid from him. There’s so much going on there, it feels, with some oddly inverted roles, that intrigues me. Maybe it’s my fondness for coming-of-age stories that inclines me to enjoy that segment, I don’t know. But you have a lot more experience than I do in the daughter department, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that part.
Andrew: That father-daughter scene hits me hard. As you say, there’s a lot going on. As a coming-of-age vignette it nails the paternal tension of wanting your daughter to be happy and successful while being a cause of her unhappiness, genetically, or because of the way you’ve raised her. Through the scene, Mr. Oscar wears a heaviness of middle-aged exhaustion and, I suspect, personal disappointments, that raise the stakes when it comes to his desire for his daughter to succeed. He wants her to be popular, bullying her to be beautiful and showing no empathy for her sorrow. She claims to be unattractive, having taken after him rather than her mother. His initial tenderness shifts to cruelty on the discovery of her little white lie. She recognises they’d be happier if the lie had stood, and I think this speaks to Holy Motors’ wider theme of performance in place of reality. For Mr. Oscar, life is performance, and if she can’t perform then her punishment is to be herself, spoken as if that’s something to be avoided at all costs. It’s a quietly devastating thing to say.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, what do you make of the two contrasting appointments where Mr. Oscar kills himself, or rather different manifestations of himself?
Jim: Wow. That’s a great observation about Angèle and her father. The imperative of performance.
Again, weird self-reflective performances describe both “suicide” scenarios. In each, Mr. Oscar is both assassin and assassinated, though the calculated hit, the stabbing, the one that takes place in the warehouse, works like a funhouse infinity mirror, since the assassin’s strategy is to disguise his victim as himself. When the victim then victimizes him, the loop is complete. It’s a brain-teaser, but mostly it’s just a gimmick, an endless nonsensical loop that reminds me directly of Christopher Nolan and that ilk.
The spontaneous attack on the banker at the outdoor café works especially, I think, as a dramatization of his own anxiety about being targeted and attacked by some faceless foe, all of which ends in a lot of shots fired and people killed and injured, none of which is real. This takes us back to the beginning of the film, as he’s leaving his heavily guarded home, and his subsequent discussion with Serge. Even in the safe confines of the limo, alone within the insular walls of his own anxiety, he’s subject to the imperative of performance.
Andrew: Yes, it’s like the walls are closing in on him, and after those two murder-suicides, death haunts the final sections of Holy Motors. The tempo really drops from here on, and it becomes hard to distinguish between the desolation of Mr. Oscar’s performances and his real-time underlying misery. That said, Carax continues to serve up puzzles (what is it with all the dogs on beds?), as well as moments of absurdity to slightly leaven the mood.
Mr. Oscar’s next appointment finds him transformed into Mr Vogan, an old man on his death bed sharing his final moments with his young, beautiful, and disabled niece, Léa (Élise Lhomeau). The blast of Shostakovich’s funeral march from his bleak final string quartet is like the music of death itself and sets the tragic tone. What follows is a tender scene, full of late life confessions and consolations, but it’s amusingly undercut when Mr. Oscar, having died, sheepishly gets out of bed, apologising that he must move onto his next job. I like how the scene plays it dead straight, in the tradition of cinematic last breaths, only to mercilessly expose the artifice. But what gives this a fascinating twist is that the two performers seem genuinely moved by the roles they’ve just played.
The unsettled feelings exposed by the scene appear to follow Mr. Oscar back into the limo, where he briefly falls asleep and dreams of driving through a cemetery to the sound of a strangled scream. He’s abruptly woken, though, by a moment of comedy, as Céline’s limo narrowly misses another, causing the two drivers to hurl insults at each other, while Mr. Oscar recognises the occupant of the other limo as his old lover. This leads into a downbeat climax, played out as a musical number in a gutted department store, with dismembered mannequins strewn across the floor as if they’ve been massacred by capitalism. As always, there’s plenty going on here.
I’m very interested to know your thoughts on this one, Jim. Also, how does it compare to Carax’s approach to musical narrative in Annette?
Jim: I suppose a few things have to be said about the setting for the rendezvous between Mr. Oscar and his old lover Eva Grace, played by Kylie Minogue. The giant, opulent, and gutted department store is the legendary La Samaritaine, which first opened in 1910, then closed down in 2005 for safety reasons (hence its empty state for the film). It stands in the very heart of Paris, in the first arrondissement, adjacent to the Louvre, and Paris’ oldest bridge Pont-Neuf, the latter the setting for Carax’s 1991 masterpiece The Lovers on the Bridge, with Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche. Further in the background you can also see Notre Dame. All that is to say that the setting for the scene between Mr. Oscar and Ms. Grace is an intersection of Parisian history and commerce, and Carax’s own filmic relationship with both. It should be noted that La Samaritaine was fully renovated and reopened just a few months ago, which has pissed off a lot of people.
The scene plays out in a classically musical form, a lament for lost love amid the ruins of a lost era, themes which are at the center of Holy Motors. The broken mannequins are a great touch, like the casualties, as you say, of capitalist blunder. There’s an urgency to the moment, since Eva has an appointment scheduled in the department store, with a fictional lover, and a tragic ending, so she and Mr. Oscar have no time to indulge in nostalgia.
For me, anyhow, it’s not a particularly moving scene, since we know nothing about this old love affair, but it’s a fitting climax to the film, as it bids farewell to the past – Paris’ past, Carax’s past, Mr. Oscar’s past, and symbolically hurls them off the roof of a towering monument to commercial fatigue.
It’s hard to compare the Samaritaine scene in Holy Motors to anything in Annette, really. There’s no grandeur in Annette, even of the tragic variety, since it’s more interested in satire and a much grimmer assessment of the imperative of performance. The musical numbers in Annette are exceedingly ponderous, as they’re supposed to be, I guess, like the score of a bluntly paced anti-romance, which it is. It’s really a different animal from the nature of homage in the Samaritaine musical.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s that nature of the homage that strikes me most about this section in Holy Motors. Carax is giving us all the gestures of the big musical number while leaving enormous gaps in the story. The dialogue seems to be intentionally fractured, starting out to give us the background and then stopping; and the song Minogue sings is similarly clipped, with her voice trailing off into sorrow. The effect is hollow, as if Carax is exposing the mechanisms of emotion without supplying its substance. The effect is similar to what I feel about most musicals anyway, but this scene seems to do it knowingly. I think it fits beautifully with the film’s focus on performance as an act of degradation. All that’s left for the lovers is to play their parts.
I read an interview with Carax where he admits the scene was originally conceived with Juliette Binoche in mind. I don’t know if it involved her suicide leap above the Pont Neuf, as ends up happening in the realised version played by Minogue, but the self-referentiality of it is pretty striking. Is Carax inviting us to fill in the gaps to the story of these old lovers with the details of their relationship in Les Amants du Pont Neuf?
Mr. Oscar’s got one last appointment, but he’s hardly in a fit state to fulfil it. He’s lost bits of himself as the day’s gone on and now he drowns his sorrows in the back of the limo, naked beneath his dressing gown. He wants to laugh, he wants to dance – he seems to want a moment of spontaneous authenticity after all his studied performance. And there is a fleeting moment when a pigeon nearly flies into the windshield that offers both him and Céline a chance to improvise. He cracks a joke and they both laugh. It’s a rare moment of genuine emotion, but it’s short lived. Their smiles withdraw into weary resignation once again as Oscar steels himself for his final appointment, and Céline returns the limo to its overnight depot. What do you make of this double ending, Jim?
Jim: It’s the most challenging part, for me anyhow, since the film, at its end, veers suddenly into conceptual abstraction. Céline delivers Mr. Oscar home at the end of the day (lovingly, I have to add; their affectionate bond is one of the film’s most pleasant aspects), but don’t forget this is his final appointment, so he’s still performing. The swirling white orbs in the pink light of the second-floor bedroom, the chimpanzee family, the news he has to tell them about how things are soon to change – it’s all mysterious and otherworldly, in a thoroughly plain and mundane way.
Meanwhile, Céline drives the limo to a large, hanger-like building called “Holy Motors”, spelled out in big green neon letters, along with scores of other huge limousines. After attaching a pale blue mask to her face, Céline exits the car and walks out of the building, as she tells someone on her cell phone that she’s coming home. With the humans gone, the rows of parked limos start talking to each other in the darkened garage, about their day, and about their fate, since some indeterminate “they” doesn’t want visible machines anymore. And that’s the end.
I love that final garage moment with the cars, because it suggests a whole other world beyond the one we’ve been watching. Carax leaves the film in a metaphysical and dream-like space not unlike the one he starts it from, but here the entire aesthetic field has shifted. It incorporates the thoughts of inanimate objects, proposing maybe, maybe, the presence of other firmaments. Here I’ll return to my original question about who all this performing is for. I don’t think for a minute that Carax is suggesting some higher intelligence that amuses itself by making humans dance like marionettes, but I do think he’s suggesting the idea of a broader, and infinitely more complex world of creative participation, some kind of elevation, or advancement. Remember Mr. Oscar’s declaration to his primate family that things are about to change. I don’t know that it’s a particularly positive change, or advancement, perhaps no better than the emergence of humans from their primate ancestors, but there is the strong sense of transformation that emerges from the dual ending. It’s a spectacular finish to a story about exhaustion and worn-out conventions joined in an uneasy accord with boundless imagination, an axle easily occupied by countless binaries, or a rejection of them altogether, as any good Dadaist perspective would.
Surely, Andrew, you have a thousand thoughts on all this.
Andrew: I do have two or three! I’m not sure how to organise them, though. I like how you’ve managed to capture the way the film seems poised to go somewhere new, without really giving away much of a clue as to which direction, or rather giving multiple clues that suggest multiple possibilities. The ending offers so many new questions, while refusing any clear-cut conventional closure to the ones the film has asked before. I find it’s confounding open-endedness paradoxically very satisfying.
As Céline approaches Mr. Oscar’s final appointment for the night, gliding along the suburban gravestone streets, I’m visually reminded of his earlier dream driving through the cemetery. He’s asleep again as they arrive, dreaming of the fresh magic of silent film. After being gently woken and tenderly farewelling Céline he approaches his front door like any other wage slave would, exhausted after a long day’s thankless toil. The way he pauses at the front door as if he’s unsure he can go through with it reminded me of the countless times I’ve done the same thing – having pushed myself to the limits to perform at work and then stalling on the doorstep, having to switch masks and steady myself to become a husband and a father. The ending captures that sense of all too recognisable exhaustion.
And yet, as you suggest, there’s a lot of other stuff going on here too. Mr. Oscar’s tenderness towards Céline seems to genuinely move her. The oversized key protruding from his grasp echoes Carax’s finger-key in the film’s opening, with all the transformative possibilities it seemed to offer. And the way Mr. Oscar promises his family that their lives are about to change for the better, while he gazes up at the night sky, again seems to suggest something new is about to take place. Whether that’s true – he may still be performing a scripted role, after all – and even if it is true, whether it’s going to be a genuinely positive change or not, is anyone’s guess.
Does the primate form of his family suggest a state of de-evolution? Is this proof of his regression to be little more than a performing monkey? Or is this a kind of system reset? Does it suggest he’s returned to nature – to the forest he’s clearly craved, and through which Carax’s key first gained entrance? Or, maybe, as the worried limos are about to suggest, is he preparing to take the final step out of physical reality and into the virtual? I don’t begin to know the answer to any of these questions, but the range of possibilities that play out along the spectrum from hope to despair, means you can apply any manner of emotional or intellectual readings to these final scenes.
And what’s to make of the anxious cars? As limousines they’re already a metaphor for our virtual reality world. They’re vehicles designed to be seen and admired and yet they don’t let you look inside them. They are superficial projections of wealth, power and prestige that hide the dubious means of their passengers. But as the lights turn off for the night in the Holy Motors depot, and there’s nobody left to observe them, then why wouldn’t they start to worry about their futures? They know first-hand that their occupants are withdrawing further into virtual reality and progressively assigning the physical form to the junkyard. I think the film’s most literal and apparently pessimistic ending is all about physical obsolescence, as we evolve beyond our bodily forms to fully enter a possible future’s virtual realm. Carax has given us a deeply melancholy film that shows us the accumulation of fatigue, and the growing sense of despair, that has followed Mr. Oscar’s long day of performing a virtual life to live up to the expectations of others. But as pessimistic as Carax seems to be, I think he’s also a romantic. And maybe, as Mr. Oscar cuddles his chimpanzee family and gazes up into the sky … just maybe, he has decided at this very moment to stop the artifice, and to start all over again, just like the silent films of his dreams.
Jim: All good questions, none of which I can answer with confidence. One I’ll add to it is what is the home Mr. Oscar departs in the beginning of the film? Is that too a performance? That one feels real, and the chimpanzee family home a performance, but who knows? Another is the word “holy” in the name of the transportation outfit (or whatever it is) that ferries the actors around, which brings me back to my previous question about the possibility of other or emerging worlds that may be a part of the mix. As an atheist, I’m averse to the idea of divinity, but it does make me wonder what Carax’s intent is with that word. I do feel strongly that he is positing the participation of a broader sentient sphere, via virtual reality and the machine-human interface, though he leaves the details obscure. “Holy” could be considered in an ironic or playful way to describe something that might seem magical to the uninitiated, meaning you and me, but is only technology beyond our current comprehension, not unlike the misconceptions of a cargo cult.
Andrew: I’ve got no clear or confident answers to your posers about the presence of a higher intelligence or a broader sentient sphere. The big unanswered questions about who is setting the appointments and who are the beneficiaries certainly leaves room for a higher purpose. My pet theory is a fairly depressing and unimaginative one – that we’re in some type of corporatised, virtual-reality, near future, and that Mr. Oscar might have mortgaged his life to a company in order to live a thousand different lives of their devising, and receive a daily payment in exchange for selling them his physical capital. Within the straitjacket of this unlikely interpretation, my cynical reading of the title’s use of the word “Holy” is that it’s simply a corporate brand – a fabricated identity promising heaven, mirroring the way our cultivated online identities transcend our physical imperfections.
To be honest, I’m not really bothered about trying to make sense of the mechanics of this future world. What I’m more interested in is the Kubrick-like inference that our evolutionary progression, towards a form of virtual reality, is both ecstatic and destructive. I think I’m drawn to this idea over others because it’s so emotionally resonant.
What this conversation has taught me, Jim, is that the more I think about Holy Motors the less I’m able to properly grasp it, and I’m thrilled by that. It’s rare to find a film that balances complex, but elusive meanings, within such an original, accessible, and entertaining form. It’s a bit like a weird and exciting dream and just as difficult to interpret. But while the meaning of dreams can elude, they can still leave a strong emotional impression, and for me that’s the case with Holy Motors. The feeling of grief – of something integral having been lost – and the weariness of needing to maintain the artifice 24/7 – these are the emotionally resonant things that help ground the film for me. Along with Denis Lavant’s brilliant performance, of course.
Jim: Yeah, look, I don’t care about answering these questions. I’m always of the opinion that what is not present in the diegesis of the narrative is immaterial to any good faith critique or analysis of a film, or any kind of story. But it can be fun for the sake of mere speculation, as we’re doing here. The film’s overt interrogation of, as you say, human advancement in the direction of virtual reality, is its primary thrust, and its most compelling invocation. I think we agree on that. And Lavant, yes, of course, the man is a genius.
Rewatching and talking through Holy Motors with you has been kind of a trip, really. At first, I wondered if I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as I originally was. It seemed to be growing more and more opaque as we discussed it. Had I over-estimated it? Maybe, to some degree, I had, but then it started revealing itself anew. I’m more attuned to its flaws now, which are, for me, primarily in the unevenness of the appointments. The hitman and deathbed sequences are ponderous, daughter-Dad is bursting with possibilities, Merde is perplexing, and motion capture is candy floss, but that’s to be expected from the sort of anthology structure that Holy Motors follows. But what popped out, what rose to prominence, is the indelible and practically flawless examination of the imperative of performance in all aspects of a world increasingly focused on analogous experience, and just the way performance creeps into the simplest things we do. I owe a lot of that newfound appreciation for the film to you and your insights, Andrew.
We never got to talk about things aside from the film, except for Covid, which I wish I could never think about again. The Carax current in the conversation whipped up so quickly we were chin-deep in film talk right away. Anything else you’d like to say or promote, while the tape’s still rolling?
Andrew: Promote? No, not really, but I do want to quickly ask if you noticed the credit to Claire Denis at the end of the film? I tried to find out why Carax had thanked her. As far as I can make out, they’re good friends, and it was Denis who recommended Kylie Minogue after Carax gave up trying to make things work with Binoche. Anyway, it was a nice reminder of our earlier Collokino on 35 Shots of Rum, and it made me reflect a little on the connections between Denis’ and Carax’s films. The occasional crossover in their use of actors (Lavant, Binoche, Golubeva) is an obvious thing, but I think there’s also some commonality in their unconventional approaches to storytelling, and in their determination to explore their themes indirectly. It always bothers me when Carax is lumped in with the so-called Cinema du Look. I think he’s much closer in spirit and quality to Claire Denis than he is to the likes of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson.
I went through a similar experience to you during this conversation, Jim, and I’ve emerged with an even greater appreciation for the film. We’ve failed in tying it into a neat parcel, but then who’d want to wrap-up something as expansive as this anyway? I’m not really bothered by any unevenness in the appointments. I like them all as little self-contained enigmas. And I like how they come together into something even more mysterious and affecting. I’m starting to see the film as an inverted riff on the concept of the “ghost in the machine”. It’s like the ghost of our virtual realities is separating from and making our physical bodies redundant. As I said before there’s something ecstatic about that, but also troubling, and I think Carax has done a great job in provocatively playing it out without fully revealing his hand.
Anyway, I better stop now and pay you my gratitude. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding conversation, Jim. Thank you for inviting me back and for being so polite about my interpretations. Your insights have helped me appreciate Holy Motors in wholly new ways, and I admire the film now even more than I did before.
Jim: Denis indeed, but don’t forget Bruno Dumont, whose Twentynine Palms features the finest performance of Yekaterina Golubeva’s brief career. Dumont also boasts two of Binoche’s best performances, one dramatic and one comedic. What’s missing is Dumont with Lavant, which might be combustible. Denis, Dumont, Carax, Haneke, they’re of a piece.
Thanks for the chat, Andrew. It’s a memorable exchange. Until next time, take care.
Andrew: Thanks, and all the best to you too, Jim. And now I’m off to watch some Bruno Dumont.