Will Noah and Theo Zenou offer opposing takes on one of Double Exposure’s most anticipated films of NYFF, Holy Motors.
Holy Motors screens at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday October 11th at 6pm, and opens at Film Forum for a theatrical run Wednesday October 17th.
Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s first feature in 13 years, finds the former enfant terrible delivering a State of the Cinema address that’s equal parts self-aggrandizing and generous. Though Motors follows a dreamlike structure, it’s hardly inaccessible, as it demonstrates with enormous assurance all the pleasures of the cinema it can muster up, without distinguishing between slapstick, melodrama, and avant-garde styles. Along with his usual star, Denis Lavant, whose sheer physical presence is as exhilarating at age 51 as it ever was, Carax delivers scene after scene of absurdity and exuberance. Still, though Carax pulls out all the stops in staging a deliriously entertaining limousine ride through Paris, the film carries a melancholy undercurrent as well.
Motors begins with a sort invocation of the muse, in which Carax appears onscreen emerging from sleep and entering a movie theater. This sequence has struck some of the film’s critics as an indication that Carax doesn’t see any value in cinema outside of himself. I’m inclined to disagree, or at least recognize the value of this opening gesture. It’s true that Carax creates a cinematic universe that revolves around him, but such is the nature of plenty of great art. What is Ovid’s Metamorphoses but the poet’s claim to immortality? Carax doesn’t even go that far, as his film posits cinema as a dying art. True, this posture doesn’t come anywhere close to humility, but like Ovid, Carax sees himself as a part of an artistic tradition, in his case stretching back to Edweard Muybridge, whose studies of human motion are included as well in the film’s opening. This still leaves room for the objection, however, that Carax sees the canonical filmmakers of the past as his only true peers and dismisses all of his contemporaries. I think it’s debatable whether Carax restricts his intertextuality to cinema’s history or extends it to the last decade, but it’s definitely true that Motors posits him as one of cinema’s last defenders. This doesn’t necessarily constitute judgment against other filmmakers, however. Like Godard’s Weekend, Motors is designed as a sort of fin du cinema, but Carax has the advantage of working in an era in which technology really has threatened the material nature of film.
“What happens when there is no more beholder?” asks Lavant’s Mr. Oscar, an actor rushing from role to role in a series of metaphysical “appointments” that leave his own personality a cipher. Holy Motors offers itself as proof of cinema’s continuing artistic viability, but raises the salient question of whether the cinema even exists anymore. Motors transpires in a world where cameras have reportedly become so small that their existence is undetectable. The motors of title refer not only to the limousine that carries Mr. Oscar from role to role, but also the apparatus of the film camera and projector. Another line of dialogue submits in resignation, “People don’t want visual machines anymore.” Mr. Carax’s vision of the death of cinema is not so much a lamentation of the work being produced today as it is a portrait of the anxiety surrounding the act of filmmaking at this historical moment. Can one even call Holy Motors a film? It was shot digitally and will be projected in DCP at NYFF. By extension, Carax calls Mr. Oscar’s frenzied act into question. It’s dazzling, sure, but doesn’t it conceal an inner emptiness?
Holy Motors constantly tests the boundaries of artificiality as a means of expression, staging extravagant emotional episodes only to undercut them. This should create a contradiction, but it doesn’t, largely thanks to Carax and Lavant’s sheer panache. It’s worth restating that for all its ambivalence, Motors remains a hugely enjoyable, even ecstatic film. The movie’s episodic structure gives Carax a free hand in crafting moments of sheer filmmaking pleasure that would require belabored narrative justification in any other context. Motors may interrogate these types of pleasure, but by deploying “high” and “low” forms of cinema euphorically and without distinction, it makes clear that it isn’t ashamed of them.
In his latest film and his long-awaited comeback, Leos Carax pulls off a hoax. Holy Motors is a film contrived by the arrogance of its “auteur” and his pretentiousness is only equaled by its self-centeredness.
This is not to say the film does not have positive qualities. In fact those qualities are precisely what makes it a hoax, and not simply a bad movie. A hoax deceives; it takes you on a journey but brings you to another destination than the one promised.
Holy Motors started off well. The concept is certainly intriguing. A man boards a limo through Paris where he has to attend a succession of “appointments”. But here’s the catch: this man is a maker of illusions, and before each meeting, he dresses up as a new character, coming in out and out of people’s lives and for the most part – in a defining moment. This is a powerful premise, and the film takes advantage of it in certain sequences, like the one in which Monsieur Oscar is playing a dying old man in a sleazy hotel room. It perfectly exemplifies the problems I had with the film. A young woman walks into the room, and slowly makes her way near the bed, sharing with the man his last moments. She is clearly moved, she knows him. Suddenly, Monsieur Oscar/Old Man gets up, apologizing, stating that he has another appointment, before storming off. The woman is not surprised, she acknowledges, understanding, she seems in on the trick. So, what are the moral and existential consequences of such an event? Do strangers disguise themselves, and meet up, pretending to be others, living those little scenes as a means of catharsis? Is it all written? I do not wish for these questions to answered as such, mystery is magic, but I’d wish to have those thematics explored, precisely because the subject matter seems engineered for them. But Holy Motors is not concerned with honoring the promise it makes with the viewer, nor does it seek to live up to its stated potential. It’s as if Carax enjoyed showing a sketch of a profound drama, but instead decides to take another route, that of a more “extravagant” approach as Will defines the film. To me, this marks a filmmaker’s refusal to live up to its responsibilities as a storyteller. In that aspect, this is a very immature and childish picture (ie. Mr. Merde’s segment). That’s Carax’s vision and one can’t criticize him for following his vision; that is admirable and to an extent inspiring.
Now, what I do not forgive Holy Motors for is that it is self-centered. Quickly, let’s note the difference between the notions of “personal filmmaking” and “self-centered filmmaking”. Personal cinema is my favorite type of cinema because it comes from the guts and brains of the artist; it is a direct transposition of his psyche. But that’s precisely what it is: a transposition, an interpretation of one’s life (feelings, emotions) onto the screen. It transcends the self to become part of a common unconscious; it’s a spiritual process of exchange from one to one another. Now, self-centered filmmaking is the opposite. It does not originate from a desire or need to express oneself through a medium, but rather from a desire or need to glorify, show off oneself through a medium, in this case cinema. In France we have a name for this “nombrilisme” (navel-gazing) and Carax might be the ultimate nombriliste.
Carax is so intent on being a great artist, one whose genius is marveled at, that the film becomes more heavy-handed than any Hollywood entertainment. That is to say, if he indulges in a cliché, then it’s great because he is “playing” with it, it’s supposed to be laughed at, or enjoyed, “admiring” Carax’s talent (because he’s genuinely got a lot when being sincere). In other words, nothing is too big for him, and because he is who he is, every scene must have a reason to be there, or maybe there’s no reason and that’s why it’s great?
Carax starts the film in a movie theatre. And then, we see the director himself (rocking his recognizable look) emerging into the theatre. He’s about to bring us into the mise-en-abime… This is the oldest trick in the book about Meta films, and there are subtler moves that are still labeled clichés. For instance, if Carax had started the picture on a crowded theatre (and left himself out), it would still have been a cliché. Because: “less is more” (ironically, to argue a cliché I end up using one). Indeed, the audience can fill in the gaps, and by making the decision of openly stating his film’s concern, Carax takes from the audience the power of initiation, the enjoyable understanding that this will be a film about film.
Another example: the conclusion indulges in two of the biggest clichés of primetime commercials, talking cars and monkeys, yes, monkeys. But remember, because it’s Leos Carax, it’s worthy. Therefore, I’d love to have seen people’s reaction to this film, signed by an unknown name…
Let me be clear, I understand post-modernism in cinema, the kind Tarantino best exemplifies in which everything is turned into mockery, in which nothing is to be taken at “face-value” or even analyzed on its own narrative grounds. As Paul Schrader coined it in his Film Canon essay for Film Comment, “sensation replaces sentiment.” Here – the clichés Carax indulges in are not supposed to be taken at face value, not even deemed satiric (satire is something of the past it seems). Precisely we are supposed to find them genius because they’re random, and incredibly lame (talking cars!). BUT — Wait a second. Where are we going? What is this culture in which mediocrity should be presented as greatness? Or rather in which mediocrity is lauded for being mediocrity? That logic is to me entirely foreign, and there’s a point where it becomes post-post modern, where too much is too much. At the risk of being labeled old-fashioned at 19, where is the desire to fulfill’s man potential? Where is the care about man, the belief in man’s ability to achieve greatness, real greatness, not one passed off as mediocrity. Those morals may be cut and dried, but faith, fear, love, obsession (and many others) remain the central phenomenons in play during a man’s life. All that is nowhere to be found in Carax’s film. And what a shame! I once read a Paul Schrader interview titled: “Prentending Life has no meaning”. All throughout Holy Motors I wanted to tell the filmmaker: “STOP Pretending Life has no meaning.”
Obviously, and as Will’s review brilliantly points out, Holy Motors is about cinema, and cinema as a machine. And from that angle, it becomes an anti-Hugo. Whereas Martin Scorsese shows the world as one giant machine, in which all of us humans have a part to play (just like in movies), and in which change and technology are to be embraced (in this case 3D), Carax has a radically different view. He’s there to honor himself, so much that many sections reference his own work – from Mr. Merde of his 2007 short to the Pont Neuf (Les Amants du Pont Neuf, 1991). This is Leos Carax telling not his version of film history but presenting his cinema canon, and it seems to mainly focus on him. He stages the death of cinema, and Carax is entirely entitled to believe in this. But instead of trying to make a film that will shake up the contemporary cinema he seems to despise, he does the reverse. And this is not a romantic letter to a cinema either; it’s profoundly cynical. Yes, here it is: cynical.
What we leave thinking is that this the work of a cynic who comes back a decade later and believes there hasn’t been any “cinema” since he released his last feature, Pola X. Or, at least, he didn’t care about any of it. Well, Mr. Carax – there was, and I’ve cared about it… And whether the audience likes this film or not, there are many chances that they’ve also cared about it.