I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Holy Motors, an Invigorating Romp through the Decaying Labyrinth of Film History

by Chris Martin
Nov. 22, 2015

Have you heard that cinema is dying? Yes, it’s true! The motion picture, the dominating cultural force of the 20th century is on its last legs as traditional film cameras and film distribution is being replaced by the inexpensive and convenient digital descendant of the original moving image. The ongoing arguments for and against digital cinema have been covered relentlessly in the filmic community and compiled succinctly by Christopher Kenneally in the 2012 documentary Side by Side.

Even those that don’t care about film production have been dragged into this mass requiem of the seventh art. Oscar darlings such as The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011) and Hugo (Scorcese, 2012) have delivered the intensive nostalgia of the century old art form to the forefront of the public consciousness by reminding modern moviegoers of bygone eras that they were almost certainly not alive during, let alone actively participating in.

Leon Carax’s 2012 film Holy Motors, his first feature length work in over a decade, fits perfectly into this autumnal eulogy for the classic ideal of film and would have fit right into the Academy Award narrative if it wasn’t for its decidedly obtuse metaphor for the death of film as well as its delightfully shocking, surreal imagery (apparently the academy ins’t ready for CGI snakelike monsters having graphic sex and a man coming home to his family of chimpanzees).

Of all the major films produced on the subject, Holy Motors is the most direct in its message that we are in the final days of the film form. The protagonist bemoans the current lack of cameras in his work as a strange hit-man-eqsque performer and misses the “weight” that the cameras provided for him. The man he complains to addresses the fact that he, as a performer, appears tired and washed up. And, in what is undoubtedly the most heavy handed scene in the film, the film ends with a panel of voices (emanating from individual limos parked in a garage, complete with high beams flashing to indicate which limo is speaking) discussing their near-obsolete status and concludes with them praying for their salvation.

The limos as the titular Holy Motors is addressed directly by Carax himself and his feeling of connection towards them, “They’re outdated, like the old futurist toys of the past. I think they mark the end of an era, the era of large, visible machines.” The Holy Motors are not only the large gaudy limos, but also the loud whirring cameras staining strips of chemical film with focused light, and every other machine still within the realm of the tactile and physical as opposed to the ephemeral and intangible digital world.

What is most interesting about Holy Motors in a comparison to other nostalgia pieces is how well it blends film history into its narrative without ever showing its hand to the viewer. There is a treasury of direct references to classic film throughout Motors without ever diminishing itself to being an homage to the past. It works so well because it is a film looking to the past without ever leaving the present, and despite itself, makes a case for the continuing lineage of the moving picture into the future.

Consider the binding plot line of the film, Mr. Oscar, played with raw physical force by Denis Lavant, is driven around Paris from morning until late into the night in a stretch limousine as he completes assignments for ambiguous clients and aims. These assignments are performances with which he throws himself into completely but is able to remove himself from the moment he reenters the limo. The roles he plays vary from a homeless old woman, to a dying man, to a Chinese hit man, to what can only be described as a savage leprechaun referred to simply as Mr. Merde. Many of these roles suggest previous films and genres without explicitly falling into the most obvious tropes of cheap imitations.

Since I enjoy discussing a character called Mr. Merde, let’s dwell on that particular sequence for a moment. It opens with the iconic theme from Gojira as the camera pans across a Parisian cemetery. Then Merde emerges from a sewer grate, appearing both flamboyant, filthy and menacing, like a wicked, vagrant fey, eating the flowers resting on tombstones and knocking over anyone in his path gibbering in a language both pronounced and indecipherable. He stumbles upon a fashion shoot and promptly bites off the fingers of the assistant photographer and captures the stoic, nearly unresponsive model, played by Eva Mendes (Carax cited her robotic eroticism as what won her the role.) He then takes her to his underground shelter where he refashions her dress as a burka, eats flowers and refuse, and rests on her lap naked with what can only be described as a raging erection. While being a wholly unique and unforgettable character (as well as being a complex response to French xenophobia in the 21st century according to Carax himself), Mr. Merde posits the platonic ideal of a movie monster: tragic, ghoulish, violent and unreachable but undeniably human. The Gojira allusion only enhances this overall comparison without the sequence falling into the tropes of a less thoughtful monster movie homage.

Other subtle and fresh cinematic references abound and constantly remind the viewer of the greater canon of film and its place in culture. Mr. Oscar’s driver is played by Édith Scob, who was the titular eyes in the classic French film Eyes without a Face. In her final scene as she returns the limo to the Holy Motors garage, she puts on a strikingly similar mask as the one she wore in the 50 year old film without explanation or conclusion. Actress turned pop star Kylie Minogue appears as a fellow limo performer in a later scene about 30 minutes after we heard her mega hit “Can’t Get You Outta My Head” pulsing out of a balcony as Mr. Oscar performs as a father picking up his teenage daughter from a party.

To make the discussion even more complex, he meta-references his own work, both in the use of Mr. Merde, who was first introduced in Carax’s contribution to a short film anthology,Tokyo!, and his own cameo in the prologue as the man with a key for a finger. Even Mr. Oscar performing seemingly as himself in one of the final sequences (its artifice revealed as he encounters his lost love dead from suicide on sidewalk, he screams in agony and grief and runs towards, and then past her body into the open door of his limo) even includes Holy Motors itself in the allusion canon with its premise within a premise. Additionally, interspersed throughout the film are grainy clips of the human body in motion. These are none other than some of the first experiments in films still preserved today and are incorporated to make sure that the canon established in the film makes its way back to film prehistory.

Mr. Oscars scene with the motion capture suit is the most important in the film’s grander message about the death of film as an art form. In a wonderfully kinetic scene of physical performance, the protagonist enters a giant industrial plant and passes through elaborate security clearances only to enter a motion capture studio where he acts out the whims of unseen director. The raw energy of his actions are juxtaposed by the empty space around him, the strength and grace rendered moot by its loneliness. He then climbs on a treadmill and is commanded to walk, shoot a fake gun, and then sprint to his breaking point. Carax continues his celebration of film through subtle allusion by directly correlating this sequence to the opening act of Chaplin’s classic Modern Times “except that the man is no longer caught up in the cogs of a machine but in the threads of an invisible web.”

Mr. Oscar then begins a graphically erotic pantomime with an actress, only for the camera to reveal that their movements are begin captured and replicate by two hideous CGI mercreatures. Although built as a gag, this revelation has notes of horror. The limitless power of computers have separated the performer from the final performance so far that there is nothing to appreciate in the final product. This disconnect is also brought up when Mr. Oscar rides to another performance and can only view the classically cinematic streets of Paris going by through a small television, and even then with a digital gloss of thermal or nightivison. To Carax, the digital camera can provide no physical connection to what it reproduces and we will only suffer for it.

So that’s it! Film is dying, or already dead! The limousines have spoken! We might as well pack up the medium and wait for the inevitable collapse of culture. We will regress to theaters packed with apes watching 90 minutes playlists of Vines. Yet what Carax has done with his celebration is film is remind us that cinema is more powerful than the film strip it is burned on to. Nearly all of the films that he has alluded to, and in many cases Holy Motors itself, was not viewed in the “proper” way on film projected in a theater. All of the beautiful culture that he recalls visually in the film was seen either on television channels, VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu Rays, and streaming on to laptops, as it is certainly the case for my own viewing of all the films referred to above. Has this retracted some of the power of these films? Maybe. But certainly not enough that the outer ripples of these previous works were not left unfelt as I watched, and rewatched Holy Motors. Granted that digital filmmaking may not have the same ‘feel’ as traditional filmmaking, but directors and cinematographers are already creating a new pallet with this medium, and the relative cost of the equipment compared to film will allow more bold, penniless artists to get behind the camera. Carax himself produced this film in part because he was not able to get any other projects off the ground that were financially viable, and even then, he begrudgingly admits that even then, Motors wouldn’t have been possible without the use of digital cameras. “They are imposing themselves or being imposed on us.” Whether he likes it or not, his own film eulogizing the death of film has reaffirmed its immortality. I demand anyone to watch the accordion interlude and not feel your heart race as you feel the electric joy coming through your screen. Film is not dying or dead, it’s fucking dancing with life!




Christopher Martin recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a degree in English and a specialization in Film Studies. Shockingly, he is currently underemployed. In his free time Chris likes to read old science fiction novels, enjoy what little nightlife Western Massachusetts has to offer, and watch as many films as possible. He also spends too much time on Tumblr.