The sad, tangled world of Holy Motors
Every movie inhabits its own universe, and we as the viewers can only follow the rules that we are provided. A film like Holy Motors easily lends itself, then, to long treatises devoted to trying to solve it like a puzzle.
And it is impossible not to be at least initially overcome with the film’s startling premise: A man is assigned to go through the day as nine different characters in nine situations, which range from making out with a contortionist in spandex, to eating flowers and kidnapping supermodels, to lying on his deathbed as his niece mourns him.
Is he being filmed? That doesn’t appear to be the case. The man, known only as Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant) is driven from scenario to scenario by his stoic limo driver, Celine (Édith Scob). She picks him up from his home (which seems to be where he lives with his wife and kids) and gives him a folder. It contains the day’s assignments.
Each scene unfolds with its own sense of frenzied logic. At first, Oscar is dressed as an old beggar woman worrying that she has lost the ability to die. He soon switches into a spandex mo-cap suit and simulating a sex-scene with another actor. He doesn’t question the roles. In between scenes he climbs into his limo (which is decked out with a full changing room, makeup, minibar, and a bucket of guns) changes clothes and puts on his makeup and gets in character.
As I watched Oscar slip in and out of character time and time again, I was aware that this was not a film about an actor in a traditional sense. Holy Motors might best be described as a fantasy, and Oscar is killed at least twice (perhaps three, depending on how you keep count) only to dust himself off and take off his costume once more. Regardless, it was impossible for me to simply regard each assignment as self-contained, with no connection from scene to scene. That was not consistent with the film’s logic, either. Celine expresses mother-hen concern for Oscar, fretting that he hasn’t eaten enough during the day. Oscar runs into other people on assignments, sometimes within assignments. There is a strange logic to the film that it doesn’t care to explain fully, and doesn’t need to. What we see is enough for me to respond to the undercurrent of sadness that, the day after finishing the film, lingers with me.
I’m not a fan of parsing films for “meaning”. One of my favorite quotes from Roger Ebert sums up my view nicely: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.” So does a movie that consists of Denis Lavant running around eating flowers in one scene and leading an accordion band in another just nine examples of entertaining solipsism?
I don’t think so. Yes, Holy Motors has a lot of fun with the questions about the structure of its universe. Oscar dies multiple times, and murders at least two people, both of whom look suspiciously like him. On two occasions when he should have been dead, Celine runs out to rescue him, but performs no life-saving procedures beyond leading him back to the limo so he can pour himself a glass of whiskey. The basic logic of the film is as “anything goes” as it gets.
But that doesn’t preclude it from having any underlying mystery about the humanity of the characters. There are stories being weaved here that I couldn’t dismiss so easily. Consider the chilling sequence where Oscar plays a man picking his daughter up from a party. Their dialogue is cheerful at first. He asks her if she had a good time. She says she did. She talks about the boys who wanted to talk to her.
Then he gets a phone call from a friend of hers that reveals that she was lying. She was leaving the party early. She hid in the bathroom the whole time. She says she feels unpopular and unattractive. Suddenly he isn’t so sweet. He berates his daughter for not being more outgoing. He drops her off and tells her that she is to be punished by having to live with being herself. In a film that features shootings, neck-stabbings and finger biting, this was the most brutal scene. And it wouldn’t have been so troubling l if it was simply a believable but one-off episode. Is the girl someone else on an assignment?
Maybe. In another scene, Oscar plays out a moving death sequence as a dying old man, being cared for by his niece. They exchange tearful goodbyes as he prepares to pass on. Then Oscar climbs out of bed and asks for her real name. She is also a performer. They bid each other farewell. Was the assignment with the father and his daughter like this one, an elaborately staged dramatic scene? Or was the run-in with another performer an accident? If it’s the latter, than the scene (the father/daughter one) takes on a much heavier, even sinister tone. Even if Oscar plays these parts for minutes at a time, the larger story of that assignment is one of deeply unhappy people. The possibility of that larger story being canon somewhere in this film’s sprawling universe troubled me. And I think that was the desired effect.
Even at its most absurd, Holy Motors, specks of light of the character behind Oscar’s characters pokes through. The film’s most memorable sequence sees him playing a madman running through a Parisian cemetery, eating flowers as he sprints about and scares away visitors. He stumbles into a photoshoot, and the photographer is intrigued (he switches from saying “BEAUTY! BEAUTY! BEAUTY! as he shoots photos of the model to an increasingly ecstatic “Weird! Weird! WEIRD!” when he spots Oscar).
Yes, Oscar proceeds to bite off the photographer’s assistant’s fingers and kidnap the model (played by Eva Mendes), the scene ending with Oscar lying naked on her lap, like a recreation of the Pieta one might find in a grad school living art installment. There’s not much logic to be derived from this scene, other than that Eva Mendes’s model never once breaks out of her photoshoot expression (a real pro) and that there is something kind of haunting about the whole thing. If it wanted to be truly random, it could have been. Making the man reckless and violent and, well, prone to flower and finger eating gives the scene a narrative. And having that narrative conclude by having the man kidnap someone to have someone to lie down on ends up doing the one thing I didn’t expect from the scene: it humanizes this particular, truly strange person.
There are other scenes that are permeated with great sadness. The aforementioned “death scene” between a man and his niece takes on a sweet tone that is still gently bitter. These two people live the same lives by pretending to be others, and can only exchange names briefly before moving on. Theirs is a strange method for people to connect, but no less valid, and there is something wistful about how Oscar asks the woman’s real name before continuing on his journey.
The film’s functional climax is a whirlwind of a sequence that co-stars Kylie Minogue as a person whom Oscar seems to recognize from years before. She says they have twenty minutes to talk, to catch up on twenty years. I won’t spoil how those minutes unfold, beyond saying they are the film’s high point as a narrative and as a tragedy (insofar as the word “tragedy” can apply in this world). Is this scene an assignment for them both? If it is, does it even matter? Where is the line between performance and reality drawn? We don’t know, and that is the point. Even if this is a scene within a scene (within a scene?), the film has so convincingly tangled its many strings of logic into a knot that the ache these characters feel for one another is overwhelming. Like the one empty rifle in a firing squad, not knowing can have a more powerful effect than knowing for sure.
Holy Motors is a story about people whose stories it doesn’t want us to know completely. But there are glimpses of something more, that show that this wasn’t all an exercise in being for the sake of being. This is a movie of possibility, but the consequences of most of those possibilities are stories of great sadness, from wistful goodbyes to tragic deaths, to the simple melancholy that comes with endlessly worrying for an old friend who can’t seem to care for themselves. The movie is less a sketch show than a series of moments of staring out the passenger side window, trying to construct the stories of passersby. One glimpse can be all you need to never stop asking questions.