Holy Motors is one of those "thing" films. You know, the kind where it defies any sort of categorization and instead becomes a sort of inanimate bauble, an art object that you look at and go...what is it? Holy Motors resists your gaze. It is not interested in engaging you. It does not care to piece together a plot for your convenience. It does not want to make the reasoning behind its form at all transparent. Of course, given compelling elements, this kind of film can be tremendous fun to unpack, particularly when it teases at its own possibilities. Holy Motors is intriguing, but my trouble, I found, was that I didn't find it particularly engaging. French director Leos Carax has filmed a frustrating, disjointed joyride many have claimed is meant to serve, ostensibly, as a death rattle for the great, big, art of the cinema. It breaks away from our understanding of cinematic grammar, drifts into muddled absurdity, and hopes, perhaps in vain, that we are hypnotized. I can't tell you that I liked it, but I certainly respect it.
In the easy to forget opening scene, we see the director himself awaken and wander, presumably in a dream state, through a secret passage in his apartment that leads into a movie theater where an audience sleeps silently through a silent film (The Crowd). It's a beautiful moment, but perhaps an easily misleading one. From there, we move completely away from the physical presence of Carax and into the raw narrative content. We meet an actor, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who steps into a limo to embark on any number of "appointments" over the course of the day. The appointments are, essentially, character gigs, though they are atypically performed. Oscar generally does not engage with a visible crew, he does not address people outside of character, and there is no way to mark the passing of time over the course of this supposed day. Between each new tableaux he prepares himself, puts on his make-up, becomes a new person, and issues laments for the lost days when cameras were visible (and presumably when film was a more risk taking, grandiose medium and not tabloid fodder). We watch him act, over and over again, through scenarios mundane and jarringly surreal. There's a palpable interest in acknowledging things past, yes, as well as an apparent desire to say something about the art of acting and becoming, and what that grows to mean as we enter a period where human presence is replaced by mo-capped renderings or diluted to merely the voice over on a talking car. Because Holy Motors so immediately seems to pick up the idea of cinema as its unifying theme, nearly every review I've glimpsed at has declared Carax's monolith as definitively about film getting smaller, moving away from craft and art and onto a digital, uniform plane, and while there are shreds of evidence to hint at that, I have to say I actively resist that reading as far too dependent on outside information and context to keep the loosely connected threads of Holy Motors together.
I would instead posit that this is a film not about the evolution of entire medium, but about the slow decline of a career. Holy Motors is interested, it seems to me, in what is intangible and ethereal in the process of making art. It's concentrated on the production of dreams and on the frustration of attempting to realize them; the act of watching as they become mangled, grotesque, and nonsensical though they appear so beautifully in the creator's dreams. The production of art remains imbued with spiritual properties, a hold over from the Romantic period that we can't seem to shake no matter how much postmodernism told us to give it up, and I'd argue that the title references not merely the loss of those heavy cameras and projection wheels, but really reveals the interest Carax has in exploring that strange spirituality and positioning the director as a god of that world. The opening sequence, in my reading, draws us directly into Carax's headspace. This is Carax's 8 1/2, a film where he stands overlooking a movie theater filled with people who just don't give a damn anymore and realizes that there is no space for what he does, that he cannot make it, that his efforts are squashed and squandered, that the audience is not present.
The film then reads to me as a sequence of other films. These are ideas and possibilities picked up and dropped, the things that could have been, mixed with the annoyance of the things that are instead and plagued, constantly, by the agony of influence (hence the varied allusions). The director disappears, as the director does, as a god does, and all that's left is an actor set to wander a wasteland of supposed films that, as noted by the dialogue, he will never see the cameras for or the audiences of. You know, cause he's strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, or something. So, film becomes life becomes creation becomes blind faith, and the director watches as his ideas back up against each other, struggle against mortality, and retreat into the obscurity allotted them by the film's constant movement. Could you read it as a thesis on consumption? Maybe. Can you still force it to fit into the treatise on a lost age mold? Maybe. But, it seems to me to be largely the product of personal vision and frustration, something that understands its end result for mainstream audiences will be exactly that opening scene (though what to make of the girl and the dog, I'm not sure), but which fights against obscurity anyway.