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And One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts

Until last week, I would have nominated “The Master” as the most interesting movie of the year. Now, having seen Leos Carax’s latest cinematic fever dream, “Holy Motors,” P.T. Anderson has some serious competition for the title.

Actually, that’s not right. “The Master” might be my personal pick for best movie of the year, and it’s a very interesting movie. But the “most interesting” title has to go to Carax (at least among the films I’ve seen).

“Holy Motors” is unfortunately getting tagged as exhibiting a kind of dreamlike, surreal incomprehensibility, and is being hailed or damned with faint praise for such. But I’m not entirely sure why the film presents such problems of interpretation. If you’re wedded to a highly concrete and specific reality in which the film takes place, then I guess I do understand it. But if you can “free your mind” as they used to say, then, on a metaphoric level, the film struck me as quite focused under its kaleidoscopic surface.

But I should probably back up and describe the film before I go about interpreting it.

The film begins with an image of a film audience sound asleep. We then move to a hotel room with a Sendakian forest for wallpaper. Carax himself is asleep on the bed. He wakes, goes to the forested wall. A shot of his hand reveals that a key is growing from his finger; this he uses to open a concealed door in the forest, which leads him into the cinema with the sleeping audience, where the aisles are prowled by a large hound. Thus we are advised: we are entering the dark woods of the psyche, and our guiding metaphor will be the movies.

At this point, we are introduced to our principal character: Oscar, played by Denis Lavant. Oscar is an “agent,” which is to say an actor of some sort, who is ferried around Paris by his elegant chauffeur, Celine (the gorgeous Edith Scob) to his many “appointments.” These are scenarios of one sort or another into which he must insert himself as a character, and he spends his time between “appointments” getting into his various characters (the limo includes complete facilities for makeup, hair, costume changes, etc). These include (not necessarily in order):

– A beggar woman ignored by passersby on a bridge (she speaks in voice-over);

– An actor in a black latex body suit “performing” in a motion-capture studio, first doing acrobatic combat with curved knives, then running on a treadmill with a submachine gun, then engaged in contortionist simulated intercourse with a red-body-suited female performer (we briefly see the animation of two hideous beings writhing and interpenetrating that will be the output of the actors’ and animators’ labor);

– A curled-fingernailed, bearded, half blind troll who marches through Pere Lachaise cemetery (here inhabited not by famous names but by tombstones that read, “visit my website”) devouring the flowers from the graves and knocking down the passersby on his way to invade an American photo shoot (the photographer, one of the few objects of pointed parody, switches from crying “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!” to “Weird! Weird! Weird!” when the troll shows up, and has his assistant invite the troll to join the shoot to form a “La Belle et la Bête” tableaux, only to get her fingers bitten off for her trouble); there, he kidnaps the supermodel being photographed (Eva Mendes, who never betrays the slightest emotion throughout the scene, which is clearly the point of her character – she’s a model, after all), drags her into the sewers where he turns her dress into a burka, then strips naked and, after berating his male organ for its erection, lies down with his head in her lap to be sung to sleep;

– The lead accordionist among a troop of accordionists marching in circles in a church;

– An assassin, sent to kill a man who, presumably unintentionally, caused someone to come to an untimely end; after stabbing the man (also played by Lavant) in the neck, he shaves his head, changes his clothes, and otherwise alters his appearance to look precisely like the assassin character, at which point the victim, with his last strength, stabs Oscar in the neck just as he himself was stabbed;

– A father, presumably supposed to be Oscar himself (though he is wearing a different costume than he was at the outset, when leaving his home), picking up his daughter from her first dance party, where she claims to have had a wonderful time dancing; when this proves to be a lie, and that she really hid in the bathroom the whole evening, Oscar is brutal, condemning her to the punishment of “being herself” and leaving her on the curb;

– Another assassin, masked, shooting a banker (also played by Lavant), and then getting shot repeatedly himself by bystanders who may or may not be the same people who accompanied Oscar-as-beggar-woman to her begging station;

– An old man, dying in a hotel room in the company of his niece, in a sequence taken from “Portrait of a Lady,” the niece played by an “agent” like Oscar himself (after the death “scene” he has to leave the bed, and wish the woman well – he hopes to work with her again);

– “Oscar” – assuming this is himself, and not another role – encountering an old flame, Eva Grace (Kyle Minogue) in her own limo (their drivers get into a minor accident); they have twenty minutes to spend together at the Samaritaine department store (or the ruins thereof), catching up on twenty years since their love affair (most of it spent by Ms. Minogue singing; they don’t actually do much catching up) before Eva needs to become her next character, Jean; Jean’s role, as it turns out, is to enter into a suicide pact with her “lover,” and Oscar, emerging from the building, discovers their two shattered bodies on the sidewalk and throws himself, screaming, back into his limo;

– Oscar himself, once again, back in the same outfit he had on when he picked up his daughter from the party, returning home, only to encounter his family as a family of chimpanzees.

After this, the limos go “home” to their garage, where we first encounter the film’s title, and get to hear them (the limos) engaging in a bit of after-hours chatter.

I’m sure you can see why I called the film “quite focused.”

Seriously, though, I think I understand what Carax is up to. As my title would seem to suggest, he’s re-working Shakespeare’s metaphor of the “seven ages of man” with the cinema rather than the stage as metaphor. In Shakespeare’s (or Jacques’s) rendering of a man’s life, we play many parts, but we play them in sequence. First we are the “mewling and puking” infant, then the schoolboy “creeping like snail” to school, then the lover, the soldier, the justice “in fair round belly,” and so forth until we arrive at the last age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

But that is not the way an actor in the cinema experiences the playing of parts. The movie itself may (or may not) take its audience on a character’s “journey,” but the actor doesn’t go through that experience. He or she shows up for a day of shooting and plays a scene – has to dive in and become who he or she must be, in medias res, and cover the abbreviated arc of a shot before moving on to another bit, or even, potentially, another character entirely. (An actor friend recently told me about working with Hank Azaria in a play, and watching Azaria record a series of bits for “The Simpsons” from his dressing room; he got paid more for that voiceover than my friend got paid for the entire year.) That is what “playing a part” means in our mediated age.

And the conceit of “Holy Motors” is that this is a potent metaphor for what life is like now, just as Shakespeare’s theatrical metaphor was potent for his time. In common is the sensation that our life consists of role-playing, that any “real me” that might persist underneath it all is almost indiscernible, and that those we interact with are similarly playing their parts, and cannot be known as themselves. (By the end of the film, I found myself wondering whether there were any “normal” people in Paris anymore, or whether everyone was an “agent” – Oscar muses, at one point, about how much he misses the camera, and whether beauty, which exists in the eye of the beholder, can still exist when there is no beholder, all of which does suggest that the answer is “no.”) What is new is the lack of sequence, the roles and genres following abruptly and unpredictably one upon the other, with no connecting thread.

There’s specific parody here and there in “Holy Motors” – mocking specific Hollywood and French cinema conventions (the double theme that shows up in both murders is a particularly hoary convention, parodied mercilessly in Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation“), and the particular absurdities of our times (those websites on gravestones), but the overarching metaphor has more power than these. Carax rouses our emotions most strongly in scenes that we know are fake – the old man with his niece, which seems to affect both actors genuinely; and, most alarmingly, Eva’s (Jean’s?) suicide, which looks plenty real . . . except that we’ve already seen Oscar shot multiple times and stabbed in the neck, without any lasting effect. The point is not so much “this is a movie; nothing is real” but that even in life nothing is “real” in the sense of completely and immediately accessible because all we can do is play the part we are supposed to play in that particular scene. The comically mystifying transformation of Oscar’s family into apes is the most brutally true instance of the metaphor. Who has not occasionally looked at his loved ones and said, “these are alien beings, a different species, who will never truly understand what I am saying, and I just have to get through this evening without them noticing that I know this about us.”

The film “Holy Motors” reminded me of most is “Synecdoche, New York,” another movie that makes an elaborate analogy between art and life. The difference is that “Synecdoche” was about the theatre, and centered on a writer/director, and so was highly controlled and governed by a relentless march towards mortality. “Holy Motors,” about cinema and centered on an actor, exhibits a more playful, more disorienting, but no less terrifying anarchy. (One might compare Through the Looking Glass, with its governing chess metaphor, and Alice’s Adventures Underground, with its governing playing card metaphor.)

In any event, as I say, this was the most interesting film I saw this year. I can’t promise you’ll like it. I can promise it’s worth seeing.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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