One third of the way through Leos Carax’s 2012 film, Holy Motors, a tramp clambers up out of a manhole, rampages through a cemetery, bites two fingers off of a photographic assistant’s hand, and abducts a supermodel, spiriting her down to a subterranean lair within the Parisian sewers. At some five minutes in length, the sequence is riveting, explosively energetic, and filled to brimming with a satiric ferocity that boils out through the erratic thunder of the tramp’s motions, and onto the landscape itself (each tombstone in the cemetery is engraved with an entreaty to “Visit My Website,” URLs provided). That this is not the most surprising, surrealistic, or just plainly weird sequence of the film speaks to the essential nature of Carax’s picture — this is filmmaking as provocation, a cinema of sublime and shocking gesture.
Now, don’t get me wrong, many movies deny explication through surreal imagery and ambiguous plotting (we usually call these art films and avoid them), and on certain levels, this might seem to be the case with Holy Motors as well. Certainly, the film has been branded with the art-house moniker, and yes, it is filled with fantastic imagery of the opaque and often baffling variety. However, most art films (by which I mean movies that formally and figuratively reject mainstream film style; it’s an imperfect term, but since I brought it up, let’s use it) operate upon a system of narrative metaphor. What this means is that the actual events of the plot in these films are sublimated into a system of higher meaning that oftentimes relays a message of socio-political or philosophical relevance beyond the horizons of the film itself. This message is usually what we like to say the film is “about.” In The Rules of the Game, for example, the plot might show a comedy of manners, but we know (or more likely are told) that Renoir is using the film to castigate the French bourgeoisie and the social discourse of his times. The same general principles apply to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Tar’s Sátántangó, most of Bergman, much of Godard, and many, many others. This is not to say that such tactics are bad; we seem to like movies that are “about” things — all of the above place prominently in Sight & Sound’s list of the fifty greatest films of all time, and are perennial favorites of academics and cinephiles alike — but, while it’s been labeled as an art film and alternatively referred to as “mystifying,” “alienating,” “boring” and “pretentious” (the favored buzz words and pejoratives of art-house cinema) Holy Motors doesn’t seem to function on this model, or even on the same planet as this model.
While the film’s images are dense, enigmatic, even at times stupefying, the confusion arises not from the film itself, but from the attempt to interpret and derive outside meaning from it. On its own, the plot is a simple thing: An actor named Monsieur Oscar, played by Carax’s longtime collaborator and sometime muse, Denis Lavant, goes throughout his day, shuttled in a limousine from performance to performance, as he takes on a variety of roles. The catch of course is that these “performances” are supposedly filmed with cameras too small for the eye to see; thus, a mind-bending vortex of possibilities arises as to the true reality of what we’re viewing (and how we’re viewing it). Yet, much of the confusion one experiences watching Holy Motors may be alleviated by taking its plot at face value. The knowledge that microscopic cameras may be filming the events of the movie doesn’t need to be deduced through subliminal interpretations of the mise en scène -- Monsieur Oscar just says it himself early on. In this light, the film is rendered science fiction, and its subject clearly defined as the present and past materialities of cinema in a time of uncertain future. Certainly, analysis may be performed, interpretations applied, and greater significance attributed, but, unlike most films termed as art-house cinema, Holy Motors finds meaning entirely within its own frame, and operates not through metaphor, allegory or allusion, but the blunt shock of spectacle. Now, this is not simply a spectacle of visual beauty. In truth, while there is an abundance of resonant imagery in Holy Motors, in terms of pure aesthetic pleasure, the cinematography as a whole falls short of its contemporaries – particularly the cosmic radiance of Emmanuel Lubezki’s efforts on The Tree of Life, Luca Bigazzi’s grand portraiture in The Great Beauty, and pretty much anything shot by Roger Deakins. Holy Motors instead delivers a conceptual spectacle, born from the disassociating shock of images that contain within themselves vestiges of the familiar, inexorably bound to a primal strangeness. These are images that do not portray, but are themselves, existentially uneasy.
Let’s return to the graveyard for a moment. The tramp is Mr. Merde, a necrotic figure of the Chaplinesque, familiar to Carax aficionados from his similar sequence in the Carax-directed “Merde” segment of the 2008 anthology film Tokyo! In Holy Motors, the character becomes another performance of Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar. That we’ve watched as M. Oscar carefully applies his makeup, wig, and fake fingernails for the coming performance does not lessen the impact of its arrival, just as knowing that we’re watching a movie doesn’t stop us from engaging with it. Indeed, the film opens with Carax himself, swathed in pajamas, entering a theatre through a secret doorway and finding the audience asleep, as the screen plays the early chronophotographs of Étienne-Jules Marey — the first fragments of image made motion. It’s this motion that Carax inherits and elaborates upon. In the cemetery, Lavant does not play so much as embody Mr. Merde, with the brute physicality of his grunts, endless consumption (flowers and cash are the preferred edibles) and penchant for violence, creating a savage pantomime that revels in the inherent weirdness of its own images and the movement of bodies through space. The effect is a scene of ecstatic power that denies rational explanation through this spectacle of the fantastic, and forces viewers to sit back and simply see. In the sequence, Carax provides us with a model of our own reaction: peering through his lens, the photographer shooting the supermodel grunts, “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!” Until at last he catches sight of the warped horror that is Mr. Merde, and turning his camera upon him, changes this mantra. “Weird!” the photographer cries. “Weird! Weird! So weird!”