by James Hansen
In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live.
A beguiling hit at this year’s Cannes Festival, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors opens, somewhat unexpectedly, in Columbus today. An ever-playful, generous, and loving celebration of all things cinematic, Holy Motors verges, at the same time, on a mournful, melancholic death drive, which has uselessly dominated discussion of film’s transition to digital technologies. Its incorporation of images from early motion experiments, however, should indicate that this not a movie singularly about the death of celluloid. While it is unquestionably concerned with death, its constantly reshaping temporalities suggest an ongoing reformation – of the image, of the body, of life itself – through performance, recorded motion, and, thereby, cinema.
Yet, this is already much too academic and gets away from the joyful pleasure of watching a showcase for actor Denis Lavant. Starring as the shape-shifting Monsieur Oscar, Lavant gives the performance of the year, not just because he effectively plays so many roles, but because of the almost primal physicality invoked through each character. While the acts occurring during his “appointments” become increasingly violent as the film progresses, Lavant ceaselessly maintains an extreme energy with each characters, so much so that it comes as no surprise when the events spill over into purposefully flagrant excess. One appointment involving motion capture has been used to discuss Carax’s recognition of the shift from indexical film to binary 1s and 0s of digitally manipulated code; still, it has to be said (and seen) that this remains tied to a body, Lavant’s body, as he sways above, under, and around the body of his female partner. This extraordinarily physical dance is the marvel of the act which transposes itself onto another screen, in another mode, for another purpose. In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live.
Going far beyond a bifurcated structure, Holy Motors uses Monsieur Oscar’s appointments as constant disruptions and narratival ruptures, which nonetheless become absorbed in the film’s “reality” as it plays out. Holy Motors has a kind of plasticity allowing it to expand into new places yet always retracting back into Lavant, into the body, into the film. Who were we? Where are we? Who will I be now? Who will I be next? Considering these questions and structure, Holy Motors follows up by Joe’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and transports it into a different type of holy territory – one of flashing lights in the sky (or the back of a car), speaking to each other, waiting to take on a new, angelic, yet earthly forms. Indeed, if the final moments echo back to the beginning of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, then the circle Holy Motors makes isn’t a retread over well-worn surfaces, but an expansive tailspin into new riches. Amen.