Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax assaulted our screens in 2012 leaving more than a few cinemagoers scratching their heads. It is a post-modern art film that initially seems so strange as to be impenetrable, but the deeper you dig, the more surprising revelations reveal themselves. This is not a review, but a deconstruction of what I think all the craziness means. Warning: barely understood spoilers ahead.
Alex Oscar (an anagram of the director's name, not a reference to the academy award) travels in a white limousine to each of his 'appointments'. It doesn't take much to piece together that these appintments represents acting gigs but the only evidence of what happens behind the scene is cluttered inside the limo itself. Overall I believe this film to be an indictment on modern movie-moving - in particular the business side of it. Oscar has nine appointments in all, along with a couple of random tangents, so in a concerted effort to prevent even more confusion, let's talk about them one by one, with my interpretations in italic.
PROLOGUE: THE SLEEPING CINEMA
After a rather bizarre intro involving a sleeping cinema audience watching a dawn-of-cinema film of a naked man, we cut to another man waking up from sleep. In the background we can hear loud traffic and we can see that it is still dark outside. As we pass the window, we realise that this room appears to be situated directly next to a busy airport runway. The room is entirely wallpapered with trees and the waking man runs his fingers over it looking for a door. He finds it and then sticks his middle finder that's shaped like a key into a keyhole. He struggles to open the door but when he does, the paper splits and he enters followed by an excitable dog.
Director Leos Carax is vocal about the fact that his films are not made with an audience in mind. I believe this segment is a metaphor for getting the funds to make this very film. The Naked Man represents himself showing his first film to an audience who are so bored they fall asleep. The Waking Man represents his film's financial backers who here is literally the key to the film getting made. The airport is movie-making as a business and the forest wallpaper represents movie-making as an art form, held at the whims of the business.
The door leads to the aforementioned auditorium where, standing from a balcony, a naked toddler can be seem walking down the isle followed by two big ominous dogs.
The imagination required to make movies can make you feel like a child again, but you always have to outrun the dangerous reality that the top dogs could bite your head off.
APPOINTMENT ONE: THE BEGGAR LADY
We join Oscar as he leaves his house and enters the white limousine. The driver, Celine, tells Oscar about the nine appointments and he begins to prepare. He brushes his wig, puts make-up on in front of an actor's mirror (complete with light bulbs) and changes into costume. All that this gig entails is an attempt to get money by stereotypically shaking a tin can.
The limousine and everything inside it represents everything that goes on behind the scenes on making a movie. In the "real" world, very little is spoken about what happens here. The audience would only typically see the final product so any hard work is here stripped down to what can fit in a limo. A reminder that the average moviegoer would be unaware of what it takes to make a movie. The Beggar Lady is ugly as she asks for money. Could this be how Carax perceives raising funds?
APPOINTMENT TWO: THE MO-CAP MONSTERS
Oscar, wearing a skin-tight black suit covered with reflective balls, enters an office where he fights thin air. "Treadmill" is heard over the tannoy so he heads over to the exercise machine that's placed in front of a green-screen. The background is replaced by moving shapes and he stumbles, complaining about being tired. In response to this, the unseen entity introduces another "actor" - a female actor whose mo-cap costume is made up of tight red leather. They simulate a very bendy sex scene. The fruit of this labour is a CGI scene of amorous demonic serpents.
There is one theory that all 9 appointments represent stages in an actor's life. The Beggar Lady is the small, independent movie crying for anyone to notice. This is the blockbuster. The ascent into superstardom. It is also Carax's view of cinema's digital age. It's telling that the green screen is only replaced with simple two-dimensional shapes with the sex scene being what people think audiences want: visual effects and sex.
APPOINTMENT THREE: THE BEAST
Oscar lets out a curse when he realises what's next. He is to play a mad hobo requiring a lot of make-up and prosthetics. After a sushi lunch, he leaves the limo straight towards the sewers. He mumbles to himself, passing by an orderly queue of what could be homeless people carrying all of their belongings. When he emerges it is in the middle of a cemetery. He maniacally stumble through the graves, munching on the odd wreath placed on tombstones that read "visitez mon site www.vogan.fr" (other legible sites include are www.tobeornottobe.com and www.destouches.fr though these no longer seem to exist).
He soon stumbles upon a photo shoot. The model, played by Eva Mendes, holds her pose while a photographer orgasmically takes her picture. The crowd step back aghast when they see the hobo enter the scene. The photographer is fascinated though, becoming inspired by this beast before him. He sends his assistant to persuade him to take part. In doing so she name-checks several artists and likens the shoot as having a Beauty and the Beast vibe. Without words, he bites off her fingers as she performs the "quotation" sign.
Bloody mouthed, he heads for Eva, licks her armpit and takes her to his subterranean home. There he empties her handbag and begins to eat the money. Noticing her ample bosom, he begins to rearrange her clothing into something of a make-shift burka hiding her face and cleavage. He then strips himself revealing himself to be visibly excited. All this excitement exhausts him and he falls asleep on Eva's lap while she softly sings a lullaby.
This is the scene most people will remember. It looks visually striking and contains the weirdest elements the film has to offer. In an actor's life, this could be seen as is his awards hopeful performance. The queuing homeless could represent the people who simply don't about this bid for glory. They have far greater things to worry about yet the photo-shoot scene (entertainment media) has all of the attention. The websites on the tombstones show how the business of making movies can be disrespectful to what many see as sacrosanct. Flowers, often thrown on stage after a good performance, are eaten. This could be Carax's indictment of the awards buzz - the entertainment media upstages the artistic merit of the work.
During the photo-shoot scene, the treatment of The Beast is not particularly nice. The actor who plays Oscar, Denis Lavant, features in many of Carax's movies and often plays his on-screen alter-ego of sorts. Could this be a representation of his thoughts about a movie's publicity? The finger biting could be seen literally as biting the hand that feeds but also something of a revenge on vapid interviewers. Despite all of the negativity towards it, this kind of promotion is necessary to get the word out.
Yet he wants to hide all of the flash and glamour, stripping down all of the excess extravagance leaving simply art in its wake. The image we are left with could be referring to classical paintings that would use similar poses.
APPOINTMENT FOUR: THE FATHER
After the all kinds of crazy we just witnessed, the next appointment is very low key. It tells the story of a father picking up his teenage daughter after a party. It is revealed that the timid young girl hid in the toilet the entire time, afraid to interact with her friends. Her father chastises this behaviour, wanting her to be more "easy going". As such, she must be punished. He states: "Your punishment, my poor Angele, is to be you. To have to live with yourself."
Is this another indictment of the crazy movie business? This time about the pressure put upon actresses to do things they may not be comfortable with. It could also be read as the negative affects glamourous photo-shoots can have on the psyche of the young.
APPOINTMENT FIVE: THE INTERVAL
A musical interlude involving accordions. Sometimes all we need is an upbeat break from the madness. Or to join a band. Or rehab.
APPOINTMENT SIX: THE THUG AND HIS VICTIM
Oscar takes on a duel role here. The first being a bald, scarred gangster thug tasked with killing a victim. He successfully does so by thrusting a knife through his throat. Then, out comes his kit. He is making this dead man look like himself. During this process, the victim briefly comes back to life and stabs the thug in the neck. The both lie dying on the floor grasping at their necks looking identical. One of them (not sure who) crawls outside into the rain where the limousine is waiting. Celene helps him back into the car.
After quitting acting for a brief musical career (the interval), Oscar returns to acting, reinventing himself - he literally stabs the old self in the neck. This doesn't go well as...
THE FIRST TANGENT
A business man awaits him in the vehicle, asking our schizophrenic protagonist if he's bored with the business. He says he no longer feels real. A dejected Oscar questions if he has an audience anymore, stating that he can see no-one during his appointments. The business man replies with: "Thugs don't need to see the security camera to believe in them." He does have an audience as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Oscar's response: "What if there is no beholder?".
This is the talk after a massive flop. Oscar is worried that no one is seeing his movies and is becoming dejected by it. It is also about how actor's can loose touch with reality.
APPOINTMENT SEVEN: THE ASSASSIN
Suddenly Oscar shouts at Celene, demanding her to stop the car. He runs out carrying a gun and wearing a red balaclava. Sitting in a cafe is a group of business men referred to as bankers. He goes directly up to one of them and shoots him in the head. In retaliation, nearby bodyguards take him down. Celene enters the chaos to remove her client and take him back to the limo.
For such a short, sudden and uncompromising scene, there's a lot going on here. From anger towards the recession-era bankers, an actor's method acting to their own personal demons. If this were a representation of the nine stages of an actor's career, this would be the injection after a flop: John Travolta's Pulp Fiction, Sylvester Stallone's Cop Land, Mickey Rourke's The Wrestler.
APPOINTMENT EIGHT: THE DYING MAN
Referred to as Mr. Vogan, Oscar exits the limousine as an old man into a fancy hotel where he heads to a room and goes straight to be, but not before spraying his brow with water from a dispense under his pillow. In enters a woman, who sits by his side. Mr. Vogan (the character) is dying, but not before the girl (playing his niece) speaks about the bad decisions shes made in her life. Mr. Vogan dyes and the girl slumps crying in his lap. After a beat, Oscar gets up appologising to the girl that he has another appointment. She replies that she has one two. They briefly introduce each other (her name is Elise) and he leaves her crying on the bed.
The prestige pic. The scene looks like it's a period piece yet there is a modern CD player. Elise uses this to turn on the score which we realise to be diagetic and not external. This is the metaphorical end of Oscar's career, seeing the new wave of talent take his place with just as much disappointment. This is his final hurrah.
THE SECOND TANGENT
On the way to his final appointment, Celese collides with another limousine. It turns out that inside this car is Kylie Minogue (yes that Kylie). It appears that the two actors know each other and have something of a history together. They each have 30 minutes to spare so the walk together through a dis-used department story and up onto the roof. Kylie sings a song which was inspired by the French classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After this melancholy number, Oscar takes his leave. Kylie then removes her coat, takes off her wig and jumps off the roof. Upon returning to the car, Oscar sees her bloody remains (and that of a second man). He screams and runs straight into the limo, the door calmly held open by Celene, off to his last appointment.
Is this one of Kylie's appointments? Or is this her real life? We know she is also an actor, yet her requiem was about loosing a baby in her youth. Truth or fiction? She tells us that her appointment is a flight attendant on the last day of her life and before she jumps, she removes her wig and coat to reveal the costume of an air hostess. Which one was a act or are they both?
My interpretation is that this again plays on the persona every actor has: the on-screen and the off-screen. Do they ever reveal their true selves to the public? This dichotomy between what is real and fiction permeates through the whole film, but here it remains ambiguous. Would Kylie simply stand up and recover like Oscar has done twice throughout the course of the film. Celene's calm demeanour also suggests that this is the case.
APPOINTMENT 9: THE FAMILY MAN
Celene drops Oscar off to his final gig - a suburban home - where he is given a set of keys, his day's pay and a new wardrobe. He pauses outside the house, smoking, only to enter when his watch chimes. His whole demeanor changes as he joyfully calls for his wife... who is a monkey. A chimpanzee to be exact. They look out of their bedroom window as the limousine drive back to the depot.
An actor's life is filled with performing monkeys, and a nagging question that they might be one as well. Subtle. Either that or he's settled doing monkey movies like Clint Eastwood or Charlton Heston.
EPILOGUE: HOLY MOTORS
Celene drives the car back to the Holy Motors depot. Once parked, she puts on a blankly faced mask and calls an unknown someone that she is on her way home. As the lights dim, the depot seems quiet until one of the limousines begins to talk.
"My client spent the whole day criss-crossing the city" says one.
"We're becoming inadequate." pipes another. "Men don't want visible machines any more."
"Yes. Don't want no more engines, no more action"
The quiet returns, they chime amen and turn off their lights.
The limousines, throughout the film, had represent the machine of movie-making. Their final conversation bemoans their increasing irrelevance. Or at least that's Carax's wishful thinking. Going by this movie along it appears he has a certain amount of disdain for the Hollywood System (aka Holy Motors). His rare interviews do nothing to contradict this either, coming off as refreshingly arrogant and unapologetically candid. I can't agrre with him. Blockbusters have just as much right to exist and indie and art house movies. Even I can't assume that everyone hates the Twilight franchise like I do.
Carax makes movies only to please himself. That's basically what he's saying here as if other types of films and film-makers don't matter. Or, in a less pessimistic reading, it could be what he thinks the top brass think of him. On a whimsical nod to films outside of this fantasy realm, the mask Celene (Edith Scobb) wears in order to go home (playing another role) is similar to one of the actress' most famous roles: Eyes Without a Face.
This is one confusing film. I don't think a month has gone since I first saw it two years ago that I haven't pondered its meaning. I love attempting to piece these types of movies together and I think I'm at a stage where I'm OK with what it is truly about. I could be completely and utterly wrong, missing many vital clues (and this deconstruction is by no means complete), but I don't think I'm too far off the mark.