“Thoughts on Various Subjects” by Jonathan Swift (From The Battle of the Books)
We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
Reflect on things past as wars, negotiations, factions, etc. We enter so little into those interests, that we wonder how men could possibly be so busy and concerned for things so transitory; look on the present times, we find the same humour, yet wonder not at all.
A wise man endeavours, by considering all circumstances, to make conjectures and form conclusions; but the smallest accident intervening (and in the course of affairs it is impossible to foresee all) does often produce such turns and changes, that at last he is just as much in doubt of events as the most ignorant and inexperienced person.
Positiveness is a good quality for preachers and orators, because he that would obtrude his thoughts and reasons upon a multitude, will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.
How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when they will not so much as take warning?
I forget whether Advice be among the lost things which Aristo says are to be found in the moon; that and Time ought to have been there.
No preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same train and turn of thought that older people have tried in vain to put into our heads before.
When we desire or solicit anything, our minds run wholly on the good side or circumstances of it; when it is obtained, our minds run wholly on the bad ones.
In a glass-house the workmen often fling in a small quantity of fresh coals, which seems to disturb the fire, but very much enlivens it. This seems to allude to a gentle stirring of the passions, that the mind may not languish.
Religion seems to have grown an infant with age, and requires miracles to nurse it, as it had in its infancy.
All fits of pleasure are balanced by an equal degree of pain or languor; it is like spending this year part of the next year’s revenue.
The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.
“Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!” a photographer coos as he snaps shots of supermodel Kay M in a crowded graveyard. A manic beastman interrupts the shoot, knocking down onlookers, chomping on flowers, and quickly diverting the photographer’s attention, lens, and mantra: Turning his camera on the little goatman, enthralled, he repeats, “Weird! Weird! Weird!”
For many viewers, this might be all that French director Leos Carax’s latest film Holy Motors boils down to: “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty! Weird! Weird! Weird!” (And, of course, all the unsettling space along that strange axis). However, it would be a mistake to think that Holy Motors is simply an excursion into the bizarre. The film’s initial scenes pile on absurdity after absurdity with no context (or recognizable film grammar) for audiences to latch to, but that absurdity eventually coheres into a profound essay on what it means to be actors in a life where both audience and director remain unseen to us. Ultimately, Holy Motors asks viewers to consider what it means to have agency: Are we subjects? Do we drive ourselves? Or are we driven?
Like many films that create their own idiom (or even genre), Holy Motors isn’t for everyone, but I think it rewards (or confounds) viewers who are willing to submit to its alienating grammar long enough to pick up enough of the lingo to engage in what is really a very rewarding, funny, and moving story. And, like many films that create their own idiom, Holy Motors is probably best experienced cold, with no forewarning. In that spirit, I’ll present the trailer (all that I knew of the film going in, aside from atmospheric buzz); my comments after the trailer will contain spoilers and are aimed more at those who’ve already seen the film (although everyone is welcome of course).
Most of the reviews of Holy Motors have focused on the way the film comments on filmmaking itself. In his review at AV Club, Mike D’Angelo establishes the context for HM-as-state-of-film pretty clearly:
Jean-Luc Godard famously suggested that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. With Holy Motors, the year’s most electrifying whatsit, Godard’s fellow French filmmaker Leos Carax has taken that idea one delightfully absurd step further. On its surface, this absurdist ode to analog’s death at digital’s hands seems to echo a number of recent essays eager to perform the last rites on cinema, or at least on its status as our dominant dream factory. Yet Holy Motors is such a bravura, go-for-broke exploration of what movies can do—is so thrillingly, defiantly alive—that it contradicts its own mournful thesis at every turn.
I’m not going to argue that Holy Motors isn’t about films—it’s very clearly about directors, audiences, cameras, watching, and, most of all, acting. Indeed, this is the most visible, surface-level plot of Holy Motors: a man, Monsieur Oscar (a superb Denis Lavant) , is driven over the course of one day in a white limousine to a series of “appointments” where he acts out bewildering scenes in the service of god-knows-what. The opening scene of Holy Motors shows a film audience; significantly they are all asleep. Then a man awakes—it’s the director Leos Carax himself—in a hotel room that slowly shifts into a faux-forest in a dream-logic shot worthy of Lynch. The man inserts a key into the wall/forest and enters the cinema. So, yes, Holy Motors organizes itself around cinema-as-trope.
But I think Holy Motors is far more profound than a metatextual, postmodern gimmick: It’s not really a film about filmmaking (although, of course it is)—it’s really a film about spirituality in a world where people seem to be increasingly disconnected and alienated from each other. Where people are asleep, like the audience at the beginning of the film. Where people do not see.
This theme becomes evident in the first of Oscar’s appointments. When we first meet him, he appears to be an extremely wealthy businessman with a loving family. (Viewers who cling to the idea that the first Oscar we meet is the stable, true version or identity of Oscar will find themselves too confused to trace meaning from Holy Motors; this was the case with the unfortunate gentleman behind me during the screening, who, at film’s close, asked his friends Hey, why do you think he didn’t go back to his house?). Oscar is picked up by Céline, who drives him in an enormous white limousine from appointment to appointment. In his first appointment, Oscar takes on the role of a crippled crone, who says that for years all she’s seen are feet and cobblestones; her eyes downcast, she does not see the faces in the crowd she begs from, just as they, in turn, do not see her. Significantly, she wonders if she will die—but her thought is not a piece of dialogue, but perhaps Oscar’s own sentiment. We will come to see that although he can feel weary, sick, and tired, Oscar is apparently immortal
Oscar’s potent life force is on prominent display in the next two episodes. In one appointment, he plays an acrobat in a CGI studio, showing off extreme physical prowess, which soon slides into a writhing, monstrous sexuality in a scene that is simultaneously icky and sexy—a comment on modern filmmaking techniques yes, but also an illustration of creative power, fecund and wild.
These themes carry over into the next appointment, where he turns into a sewer-creeping Pan-figure, an underground spirit that recalls forest creatures from antiquity, but mythic and nightmarish. On a hilarious rampage in a Paris graveyard, he comes upon super model Kay M (Eva Mendes), who figures here as an idealized woman-as-object. The little goblin/Oscar steals her of course. The segment plays out as a series of bizarre mythic allusions, moving through (and inverting and disrupting) Beauty and the Beast (Beauty! Beauty! Beauty! Weird! Weird! Weird!) to Cinderella to Bluebeard to Sleeping Beauty to a riff on the Pietà. The imp redesigns Kay M’s outfit, fashioning it into a burqa, then disrobes to show off his proud erection. The episode condenses so much of the mythic-historic-allegorical relationships between men and women—and in particular, how narratives present (and amplify) those relationships.
Holy Motors is very much about male-female relationships, a facet of the film probably ripe for a much more detailed critique than I’m going to offer here, other than to suggest that these relationships fall squarely into the film’s rubric of subject-object relations. Suffice to say that almost all of Oscar’s appointments are with women or girls (and to boot, his most “real” relationship is with his driver Céline).
After his goatman episode, Oscar plays a cruel father picking up his daughter after a party. Juxtaposed against the absurd violence and bizarre sexuality of the preceding episode, the father-daughter scene’s simple realism unfolds with throbbing menace that’s difficult to bear. (The guy next to me walked out at this part, never to return). Up until this moment, Carax has used absurdity almost as a bludgeon—but the emotional connection between the daughter and her father/Oscar ups the ante considerably: the daughter seems to genuinely, emotionally believe that Oscar is her real father. It’s here that the structuring grammar of the film becomes more available to the audience: Is the girl just another actor? And if so, what does that say about the family we thought was Oscar’s?
We’re also given more clues to Holy Motor’s mystery when an unidentified man appear’s in Oscar’s limo. Their conversation implies that Oscar is an actor who performs these scenes for an audience he will never see; not only that, he cannot see the cameras, and he will never see the director. He is an actor completely severed from agency, let alone stable identity. He is driven from assignment to assignment, unable to step back and see the bigger picture of his work, let alone make lasting connections with other people.
Then we get a spirited entr’acte, an accordion jam led by Oscar that builds and swells into a march that reinvigorates the film into its second half. The halfway mark finds Oscar meeting his only male appointment, a gangster named Theo he must assassinate. We see immediately that Theo is yet another character played by Denis Lavant; the murder that ensues is a bizarre piece of almost vaudevillian humor, culminating in both Theo and Oscar, dressed alike, dying from matching stab wounds. One of the two men returns though, and seems, after a few minutes of replenishing rest, no worse for wear despite a life-ending wound to the jugular. Oscar’s identity is thus even more complicated—is it really Theo that returns? Or does that even matter at this point?
The film then reemphasizes Oscar’s apparent immortality; he spies a banker—the man he was when we first meet him in the film—and makes an unscheduled appointment, jumping out of the limousine to kill the man (again, played by Lavant). After this unscheduled murder he’s gunned down by the banker’s bodyguards who riddle him with bullets. (“Aim for the crotch!” one exclaims in a hilarious line that picks up on the film’s motif of male sexual power). The back-to-back murders clearly figure as a type of self-erasure, but they also highlight the strange fact that Oscar cannot die.
Oscar then starts to break down a bit. He’s tired. He starts drinking heavily. He also abandons his American Spirits for what appear to be marijuana cigarettes. In this state of decay he soon takes on the role of a man on his deathbed attended by his loving niece—his “angel” (the pet name recalls the father-daughter appointment—the daughter was also Oscar’s “angel”). The scene plays out like a melodrama, but we also see that Oscar is genuinely touched by his interaction with the niece—he even asks for her real name. Again, we get the sense that these actors are playing parts in someone else’s story, little fragmentary bits that they cannot comprehend, scenes that fail to add up to something more, something lasting. The scene so deeply affects Oscar because it represents his fantasy perhaps—to quit, to die, but also to have mattered, to have been loved, to have led a meaningful existence. Carax punctures the sentiment with the radically absurd moment of Oscar getting up right after his character has died.
Oscar’s need to connect becomes most evident in what may or may not be an unscheduled appointment. He runs into a another Holy Motors operative—literally; their two white limousines collide under the bright lights of the abandoned La Samaritaine department store. This other operative, or agent (or angel?—perhaps) is Eva Grace, or Jean in her upcoming role. The two share a spare half hour before their next appointments, walking through the decay of La Samaritaine up to the roof top. The store is littered with mannequins, suggesting the disposable nature of identity in Holy Motors. Eva Grace and Oscar emerge on the rooftop into a decayed garden, where she sings a song in the old Hollywood musical style. With her cropped blonde wig, Eva Grace strongly recalls Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music here. The song touches on what I take to be a past scene between Oscar and Eva Grace—a shared moment, a shared scenario, but one spiked with the loss of a child. What’s really lost though is a shared future.
Now’s as good a time as any to bring up the dense religious allusions here—Oscar and Eva are Adam and Eve in fallen Eden, in the decayed world. The failed Samaritaine alludes to the parable of the good Samaritan Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke, recalling Oscar’s first appointment as a homeless crone who receives no charity—not even a sympathetic look—from the people around her. And while I’m riffing on allusions and names: Oscar is parceled from the director’s name (Leos Carax), but it also (intentionally or not) recalls the bald statue awarded to films. The name Theo clearly echoes God, tapping into the film’s religious/metaphysical theme, as does Eva Grace. Céline, Oscar’s driver (and best and maybe only friend) means of heaven or heavenly—again a religious allusion—but it also echoes the bitter misanthropist Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
The scene with Eva Grace plays out to its tragic end and Oscar rushes headlong into the stability of his limousine, and then breaks down in despair. “We have to laugh before the night is over, because who knows if we’ll laugh in the next life,” he tells a sympathetic Céline. The message seems plain, even pedestrian, but it’s also set against the backdrop of intense existential despair. Laughter—momentary, brief, and ultimately ephemeral—is the only medicine that might help Oscar in a world where he has no agency. Carax allows Oscar and Céline to share a simple laugh before he’s driven to his last appointment.
Oscar walks up to a house to meet his last appointment of the day; it’s clear that he will sleep there that night with his “wife and child” and leave again in the morning in his limousine—a loop that repeats with difference. The scene unfolds to a hyperbolic torch song that spells out the film’s questions of immortality and what it might mean to live a life again (and again and again). The song introduces extreme sentimentality to the narrative, but just as it threatens to overwhelm the tone of Holy Motors, Carax delivers the best punchline I’ve seen in a film in years. The final image of Oscar with his “new family” is absurd, moving, and hilarious—it also underscores the film’s questions of human agency.
We then see Céline—along with dozens of other drivers—returning their limos to Holy Motors headquarters. Céline dons a mask and makes a phone call to announce that she’s “coming home” — she apparently has an identity outside of Holy Motors, one not afforded to Oscar. The final scene at first appears as another absurd, even silly moment—the limousines talk to each other. Their dialogue though quickly becomes philosophical, as they dwell on their own impending obsolescence, their own ties to humanity will be severed. In near-unison, they agree, and close the film with an “Amen” — Holy Motors is a prayer.
A prayer for what and to whom then? To a director—a god—who won’t reveal the big picture? To the things that drive us, that move us to places and situations beyond control? To the sleeping audience, the would-be mirror that greets us (or, more to the point, can’t greet us) at the film’s opening? I’ve over-summarized Holy Motors here in an attempt perhaps to see it again—to reimagine what I saw last night. (Had the theater offered a second showing I would have sat through it). I don’t have an answer to the questions I’ve just posed, and I’m not sure if seeing it a second time (or a third or a fourth . . . ) will yield more. But Carax has given us the kind of film that warrants repeated viewings. Holy Motors is destined to be a cult classic not just because of its wild absurdity and visual flair, but also because it presents a dramatic and compelling—and perhaps maddening—puzzle for its viewers. Very highly recommended.
Jonathan Sacks’s The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning is getting a hardback release in the US from Random House (it’s been out in the UK for a while now). RH’s blurb:
An impassioned, erudite, thoroughly researched, and beautifully reasoned book from one of the most admired religious thinkers of our time that argues not only that science and religion are compatible, but that they complement each other—and that the world needs both.
“Atheism deserves better than the new atheists,” states Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.”
Rabbi Sacks’s counterargument is that religion and science are the two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth. Science teaches us where we come from. Religion explains to us why we are here. Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning. We need scientific explanation to understand nature. We need meaning to understand human behavior. There have been times when religion tried to dominate science. And there have been times, including our own, when it is believed that we can learn all we need to know about meaning and relationships through biochemistry, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. In this fascinating look at the interdependence of religion and science, Rabbi Sacks explains why both views are tragically wrong.
Look, I’ll be frank—I’m hardly a fan of the so-called “new atheists,” but that’s not what this book is really about. It’s really about trying to restore an anchoring metaphysical center—a god, namely, Sacks’s god—despite the progress made by science and philosophy. What I find repellent about Sacks’s book is the idea that only religion can provide a logical, meaningful answer to “why we are here.” I have no problem with the coexistence of religion and science, but that’s not what Sacks wants. He wants religion to dominate. Anyway, clearly I’m not enthusiastic, but if you’re interested, here’s a proper review.
Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental.
– From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1918 letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe; the letter is collected in The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens).