“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.
So I hadn’t really put all the pieces together on this one until I found this wonderful article about Steven Spielberg’s stupid-looking new movie War Horse, basically paring the whole thing down as a gay metaphor. Hearing this Oscar-bait, bullshit family film cut down to size was bizarrely satisfying for me but I couldn’t understand why at first.
Or furthermore, why had I been so 100% dismissive of this entire movie from the moment I heard it announced like two whole years ago?
I mean Spielberg is undeniably a master filmmaker and is certainly responsible for two or three of the best American films ever made (The Terminal and Amistad obviously . . . oh, wait, I meant Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and Jurassic Park: The Lost World . . . shit . . . I mean A.I. . . . oh never mind). And it’s not like this movie features dead-eyed, gross looking, CG-inflated cartoon characters, so what was driving my antipathy?
Then of course it hit me: Horse Movies suck.
Pretty much all of them. Horse Movies is maybe the worst genre in cinema history, with the possible exception of Poker Movies (but I’m still unpacking this, so I can get back to that). Why do I even know this though? How many Horse Movies can I even name?
Not that many: Black Stallion, Black Beauty, National Velvet (that was about horses right?), Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. And have I even seen any of these movies? Certainly not the two newer titles on that list, (those of the sub-subgenre: “Celebrity Horse Movie”) and I did somehow watch Wild Hearts Etc. with my wife at some point last year (it was an identical experience to my memory of watching it with my sister years prior; both times I’m pretty sure I was asked to leave the room by the end).
So what of the three old ones: Two Blacks and a Velvet? I have no idea what these movies are about, except that of course I do: they are about beautiful, powerful horses and the presumably young people who share a wordless bond with them. It is passionate. It is real. It is love. Pure and simple. I know this because all horse movies are about the same damn thing and also because I have some strange, unspeakable back-of-my-mind notion that somewhere in my childhood I was subject to abuses, of a cinematic kind, but apparently no less haunting, made to watch an endless stream of Horse Movies made for The Whole Family, because like every family in the suburban south mine loved horses.
Wait, no we didn’t. My Grandpa had been thrown from one as a child and suffers to this day from a fear of them that was passed down to me as a kind of darkly cautionary tale. “Don’t ever ride a horse,” he would tell me while I watched him fashion wooden swords for me out of scrap-wood from his garage workshop. As far as I know I have no memories of my father or mother riding or showing any interest in horses. So why of all movies did we gather around to watch Black Beauty on a Sunday night?
I have no idea.
All I do know is that I hated every minute of every one of those films. It isn’t something I think about very often, but reading that article sent me on quite a trip through the past. A past full of boring shitty memories of watching shitty Horse Movies.
War Horse looks like something I would have to watch with a babysitter when my parents had a party to go to or something. One of those times when they rent a movie for you as a surprise and you have that moment where maybe they are going to tell you it’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and then: nope, surprise War Horse. Have fun.
I should stop beating up on that movie though; it’s kind of unfair, especially since I haven’t seen it. I think I should attempt to focus instead on understanding why I hated/hate the Horse Movie genre. Obviously it all comes down to: taste in genre in any medium is so totally subjective it’s almost not worth attempting to understand or explain. Why some people have an endless appetite for reggae music and zombie movies is completely beyond me and obviously plenty of people would be equally baffled by my general enjoyment of free jazz and Space Horror (the genre of horror films that are all set in space, e.g. Leprechaun in Space and Event Horizon). So for me to say that all Horse Movies are in some ways the same is both obvious and redundant; of course they are, that’s what makes it a genre. All Boxing Movies are the same too, but I thought last year’s film The Fighter was totally amazing. So I will concede that there are people out there who just love all these Horse Movies that parents around world seem to jam down their kids throats year-after-year. These people want more more more. More horses! More shots of humans hugging horses and crying! I can only speculate what’s behind this reaction; if my own natural disinclination to theses films springs at least partly from an inherited fear of horses, then I must assume the opposite factor is at work in the hearts and minds of Horse Movie Lovers. These are people with a natural love of horses or people who perhaps have known the love of a good horse. (No laughing at that please. I am going to talk about Zoo later, but for now I still mean Innocent Love of horses).
So yeah, if you grew up around horses, or had your own horse, then I would bet that you get more out of Horse Movies than I do. If you’ve experienced this apparently near-mystical horse-human connection, then you are understandably going to be more affected by watching people like Tobey Maguire pretend to be having it as well. But as film genres go, some things are just more cinematic than others, and in my own subjective opinion certain things kind of automatically make for less engaging films. This is where the comparison to Poker Movies comes back. Poker Movies are really really really really really really really awful. Because poker itself is the most boring thing in the world to watch, unless of course you’re just WAY into poker, and if you are, you can spend hours watching those terrible celebrity poker tournaments because you can mentally project yourself into the game and sort of “play along” with them. Now, in most poker movies there is no actual poker going on, so the best you can hope for is that people who are way into poker will be entertained by just hearing their stupid familiar expressions — “Oh shit, he got two kings on the river” or whatever. Those of us who hate poker will be doubly bored because we have no intrinsic interest in the game, and we hate the terminology, (oh and you know that whole Poker Face thing? You know how in order to be good at poker you should be as blank and emotionless as possible? Yeah, you get it, watching actors act like they are playing poker means watching really expressive people NOT express anything for two hours).
So I’m taking the long way around here, but I think I just convinced myself that the Poker Movie is indeed The Worst Genre. Because while Poker and Love of Horses are both things that are totally un-cinematic, and interest in them in a movie is disproportionately dependent on the audience’s previous knowledge and/or experience (more so than say, boxing. It’s two dudes punching, easy to follow and grasp), at least Horse Movies have horses in them. Does it sound like I’m contradicting myself? See there are plenty of great, awesome, powerful, exciting movies that have horses in them, look at all Westerns, hell even Melancholia had some awesome horse sequences. Horses are beautiful animals and they look amazing up on the big screen, especially in slow motion. And horses as photographic subjects are wonderfully compelling, so it’s a very weird irony that movies featuring horses are great, but movies about horses bore me to tears.
Still: Someone should make a movie about a bunch of horses playing poker in slow motion. That would be the apex of both these genres. Throw some William Basinski music down for the score and I’d watch that all day long.
Hmm. I kind of feel like I completed my thought there, but I promised earlier to talk about Zoo, which is the notably huge exception to everything I have just said. Zoo is the movie about the guys who have sex with horses and one of the guys dies because the horse-sex kills him. I wholly adore this movie and have watched it several times.
(And no, in case you are wondering there is not a bunch of graphic horse sex in the film; it’s a documentary made of voiceovers and sort of “unsolved mysteries style” re-enactments, none of which involve actual horse sex, with the exception of maybe two or three seconds of actual footage that appears very small in the frame, on a television set being watched by characters in the shot).
Why do I like this movie so much when I can’t stand all the other ones I mentioned? I think partly because it is more real and because it’s not a movie for kids, and also because it combines (an even more baffling) Love of Horses (these guys know the love of a good horse, right?) with my naturally felt fear of them. I think all of the kids movies about horses all feel like bullshit to me because they very obviously and rightly leave out all of the weird shit humans have going on with these animals. I mean, the sort of Freudian thing about little girls and horses is silly and cliché as any tired old “What does a cigar look like?” jokes your dad could come up with. We all know that there can be this weird sexual component to our interaction with horses, and if you’re at all like me you look at these things and see Giant Dangerous Animals, just as much as beautiful graceful creatures. So Zoo seems really vital to me as one of the only movies to really capitalize on all of that stuff, (I realize now that I have never seen Equus, doesn’t that have dark, sexual, horse stuff too?). And add all of this to the fact that Zoo is an exceptional story and a true story, so it’s that much more interesting. By exceptional I mean that it is precisely not the story of a normal kid who discovers a passionate connection with an animal. No, it’s the story about a group of guys who have sex with horses, and beyond that it focuses on the guy who died from it. So he’s a unique member of a unique group and this factor makes it interesting.
As a kid one is supposed to watch those horse movies and project one’s self into them, have a vicarious relationship with the black stallion for two hours, but because I was never all that interested in horses it didn’t work for me. I’m not looking to project myself into the story; Zoo works for me because the characters couldn’t be more different from me.
The true story aspect makes a difference too; take for instance The Horse Whisperer vs. Buck, (both terrible titles btw). I couldn’t be less interested in the Redford film, but the doc looked pretty fascinating. So I guess that’s the takeaway: When it comes to horses go documentary over narrative.