2 December 2012

Holy Motors by Carax, 2012

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 6:06 pm

Getting my own numerological obsession out of the way… Early in the film Oscar asks Céline, his chauffeuse, if he has a lot of appointments scheduled for the day. Nine, she tells him. But at this point Oscar has already had two appointments. So I counted them myself:

1. Hotel portal into movie theater
2. Exec leaving big white house with children and guards on the roof
3. Beggar woman
4. Point-light CGI dance…

motors bend

5. Beauty and the beast at photo shoot…

motors eyes

6. Father retrieving daughter from party
7. Entr’acte with accordions…

8. Murder at warehouse
9. Murder at cafe
10. Old man dying in bed
11. Musical interlude with Kylie Minogue…

motors roof

12. Home with chimps

One could split a couple of these appointments into two separate scenes, but each of the 12 requires Oscar to assume a different persona. Between appointments he is Oscar, riding in the limo getting ready for his next appointment. But is this the “real” Oscar? Or as limo-rider is he again playing a role? Surely he is, since it’s this role — Oscar as performer doing a variety of gigs — that holds the whole movie together. Make it 13 appointments then.

But what about the last scene, the titular scene, when the holy motors, the limos, are all gathered at the garage? Oscar isn’t in this scene, but like the interior of the limo, the garage is a setting that frames the whole movie. The cars are lamenting the lost age of the “visible machines” like themselves, the “holy motors,” replaced now by the unholy and invisible machines of CGI and the backroom banking mechanisms where the movie deals get done and the appointments get put on the books. We infer that Oscar too is a holy motor, a visible machine, a live actor, and that his time too is coming to an end. So this nostalgic garage, populated by no living humans, is a kind of mausoleum. We’ve had scenes shot in graveyards, we’ve seen Oscar killing his own double, twice, we’ve seen Kylie either suicided or playing a suicide, so this comically mournful scene of reminiscing limos is the future unreality toward which the rest of the movie points.

So let’s make it 14 appointments, the last one with Oscar absent except in postmortem spirit. And voilà, we have the fourteen Stations of the Cross, with Oscar playing the role of Jesus and the garage playing the tomb, the Fourteenth Station. And the limos are like the angels in the tomb, ready to bring Oscar back from the dead again tomorrow. I believe it was the Entr’acte that tipped off this idea for me, since it’s played inside a cathedral like a liturgical procession, and all of those old French churches have the Stations lining their walls.


  1. Yes Oscar is definitely Jesus, which is reinforced in the burlesque with the ”Muslim woman”. But as I said elsewhere, he’s a Jesus wishing to be incarnated again – a bit like the angels of the Wings of Desire.


    Comment by cpc — 3 December 2012 @ 3:00 pm

  2. I wonder if a coherent story — a bricolaged Via Dolorosa — can be assembled from Oscar’s assignments:
    1. The artist is the key that opens up the cinematic world.
    2. The banker has the lavish house, the devoted family, the security.
    3. Whereas the artist has nothing and no one and must beg to survive.
    4. The artifice of the hidden CGI machines is made possible only because of flesh-and-blood actors.
    5. Cornball Hollywood standards of beauty are made sublime only by the weird exiled underground beasts of true art (transforming the kitschy Pietà pose into something very…different).
    6. I don’t know: maybe today’s would-be exiled beasts of art are being forced into societal normalcy by peers and parents?
    7. Real artists are holy and will play for a song.
    8. The artists are destroying themselves by playing crap Hollywood assignments.
    9. Whereas they should be destroying the bankers who engineer these assignments.
    10. I forgot what happens with the old man dying.
    11. Only the other artists understand; only they have the true romantic nostalgia.
    12. The new cinematic assignments of the hidden machines aren’t getting posthuman; they’re regressing to the prehuman.
    13. You’re always playing a role even when you’re between assignments.
    14. Is cinema dying, or is it always being born again?

    I see from your blog that the mask Céline dons at the end reprises a role she played many years ago. So she’s not just Oscar’s driver: driving is just one of her assignments.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 December 2012 @ 4:28 pm

  3. 1. References ‘Mulholland Drive’ clearly, and clearly, too, Lynch is Carax’s biggest influence – the ‘look and feel’ of the film demonstrates clearly (third time I use clearly); if you’ll remember Lynch started with animation, and as I wrote on my own blawg, I feel that animation is the driving force of the digital revolution not necessarily because of FX, but because of animation’s ability to metamorphose without cutting. Clearly the central juxtaposition is between animate and inanimate, which translates to virtual versus real, and the strange key-like contraption on his figer clearly (4) also indicates that we’re talking about animatronics that is to say the penetration of the animation into the human corpus; God I’m brilliant, clearly!

    2 and 3. ANother forceful juxtaposition is between the market and the artist. The Market is appropriately designated as God, a faceless and personless force that plays OScar like a puppet even though his ‘bosses’ remain invisible and interchangeable

    4. How exactly do you mean this? My conclusion was more that it’s not at all CLEAR anymore what’s an animatronic puppet and what’s an actor. Here I have to think of the visual parallel I noticed between the cock of the devillish beast that penetrates the female figure, which later I think turns into the (fairly mediocre and ugly) cock of Oscar. The theatrical motion capture ballet could be a kind of a Garden of Eden myth then? It’s also interesting that Oscar has a kind of a permanent erection. Does this problematize the Phallus, or is it more to address Oscar’s immortality?

    5. A big ”HM”. I did feel on a few occasions that the fim was going to become obnoxiously avant garde in the meaningless way of much modern arthouse cinema, but now I think it’s more a kind of a self-parody when it gets ‘artistic’ like that. COuld be a kind of a self-reference for Carax, much like Lynch included the character of the humiliated director in Mulholland Drive?

    6. I don’t think so. I would rather say that Oscar’s avant garde art, since it is commissioned by the Market, shows the Market’s total control of art

    7. ? Where’d you get that?

    8. See 7

    9. I do not quite understand what motivates Oscar not to break with the bosses, but that’s probably beside the point because he is apparently in thrall of the Market, which can neither be pinned down nor can it be argued against
    10. That one didn’t communicate much to me either
    11. ?
    12. Don’t understand
    13. I think that central point was taken from Eyes Without a Face, where the idea is that the disfigured woman has fused with her Mask into what was a prescient image of the ”new flesh” – a creature whose virtuality is becoming corporeal
    14. Cinema is actually EVERYWHERE, as you say you’re always playing a role (for invisible cameras), or blogging, or in some other way performing for an outside observer. This is what makes the proclamation ”cinema is dead” completely meaningless, and only worthwhile to nostalgics, who on the other hand are missing the point


    Comment by cpc — 3 December 2012 @ 5:55 pm

  4. Well anyhow, I think we’re in agreement that the assignments are more than opportunities for Oscar to demonstrate his amazing chameleonic skills; they are like little parables about cinematic art in a world increasingly squeezed by money and technology. But it’s exhilarating, a celebration of cinema paradoxically framed in a world of cemeteries and deserted buildings. No question that the first scene pays homage to Lynch, and especially to Mulholland Drive. In the wiki entry for Carax he looks very much like the pajama-clad guy who steps through the portal. The flashing lights on the other side of the wall are like the lights when the director in MD goes to see the Cowboy; the theater is the Silencio. And Celine’s limo is like the limo driving along Mulholland Drive at the beginning of Lynch’s movie — a hearse, a moving tomb.

    To be clear about #7, I think it’s not staged as a cornball music video — it’s an entr’acte between these setups. Rather, it’s a celebration of music for its own sake, played for the joy of it, not for the audience and presumably not for the money. I.e., I see it as sincere. I picture Carax rounding up a bunch of Paris street musicians and paying them a few bucks to play a simple tune in the church. They actually look like they’re having fun.

    In #8, Oscar stabs himself in the context of some sort of hokey criminal genre flick. In #9 he shoots himself in his banker disguise — so maybe it’s the sense not of killing the banker but of artistic suicide for the sake of the money. And #12: his family is regressed to monkeys — pretty straightforward critique of what cinema is reduced to, I thought.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 December 2012 @ 7:34 pm

  5. You talk about animation… the world of Holy Motors reminded me of Toontown in Roger Rabbit


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 December 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  6. I assumed that the first character, the guy walking through the hotel wall into the movie theater, was Oscar, or the actor playing Oscar, but now I see that it was Carax himself, the director, playing that first role. So do we regard Oscar as Carax’s double for the rest of the movie? Sure: Oscar is Carax’s middle name, after all.

    If Oscar is a Jesus figure, then we could regard Jesus as a performance artist doing magic tricks, giving speeches, etc. What’s he doing in between shows? And is he getting sick and tired of the routine, same old miraculous shit day after day? In that sense Jesus is just another guy doing his job. And everyone is Jesus, or Mercer from PK Dick’s Electric Sheep, rolling his stone up the hill day after day. Oscar is Everyman: he’s not just acting these roles; he’s embodying them — he is a banker, a beggar woman, an assassin, etc. Everybody has his assignments, day after day: going to the office, getting out the tin cup on the street corner, sticking the gun in your pocket to do a hit, etc.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 December 2012 @ 10:13 am

  7. I feel compelled to return to an older discussion where you were trying to convince me, I think, that no we don’t need to get into marketing cliches in writing. You seem to retain a kind of an old school distinction between popular and elite culture. But what better evidence than this film, which to all intents and purposes is a CARTOON, that in the end, it’s all about cliches. What helps is also the surrealist sense of humor – without it, the film would be one of those impenetrable early David Lynches that nobody really wants to watch because they communicate only to the artist. There’s an old Daffy Duck cartoon, Oscar-winner I think, in which hats all falling from the sky, and when a hat falls on a character’s head, he turns into the person represented by that hat. HOLY MOTORS is just that – nothing more, nothing less – at its heart.

    Yes I think he’s a Jesus plagued by immortality, that is to say he doesn’t seem to find a way back into earthly life. But this is no longer the Berlin from Wender’s optimistic vision, this is a zombified world taken over by the New Flesh. Oscar’s ”performances” seem to have a retro-futuristic quality to them in that it feels like he’s visiting places of the past which contain the seeds of the future. For example, there could be a connection between the concerned father’s conversation with the teenage nerd daughter, and the episode with the death of the old man. I feel there’s a sense that some new materialization is about to take place, or could take place, which blends the virtual and the material. As if the virtual would be ”actualized” in this manner. I lack the reading of Deleuze though to give you more. I also think that the episodes are not really disconnected or random, even as they may seem that way. When you number them as you did and put them on a list, it does appear like some kind of a hagiography or a creationist myth. The stories are definitely allegories. It reminds me of Bunuel’s work like VERIDIANA and that other movie about the Bible whose title I can’t remember anymore.

    I recommend the Eyes without a Face from the bottom of my bottocks. HOLY MOTORS is really medicore in comparison, as are most of the film’s subsequent imitators, including even John Carpenter. I was especially awed by Alida Valli’s performance as the woman with a personality disorder.


    Comment by cpc — 4 December 2012 @ 1:10 pm

  8. My God, are you’re saying that I’m… over-interpreting? I agree that we have reached a limit here already.

    No question that each vignette is extracted from cornball genre tropes, but that’s what makes it such a grind, day after day, to act them out. Still, Oscar brings enough vibrancy to bring them to life — almost. These events pop into existence, but as soon as they’ve been played they recede back into the zombified Tomb World, as Dick called it.

    All movies are virtual, cartoonish and 2D even when played by actors and watched by people wearing 3D glasses. It’s why this world of Holy Motors felt like Toontown: as if it’s possible to enter into the virtual reality of films and live inside it. But don’t you have to become 2D in order to accomplish it, a posthumanity that’s subhuman, like Deckard becoming a replicant if he wasn’t one already? And if you can’t penetrate the portal and live inside the movies, does movie-making become just another job, and do you regress into a cardboard caricature of a human by the sheer routine? Of course all of this is far more bleak sounding than the movie itself, which as you say is cartoonish or circus-like in sensibility. Of course the French also managed to find serious art in Jerry Lewis shtick.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 December 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  9. Oh, maybe you’re saying that even a lowly cartoon can be subjected to highfalutin’ interpretation, that there’s no distinction between popular genre and high culture, that even Daffy Duck can win an Oscar? Yeah well, I’ll give Eyes Without a Face a look; I enjoyed Holy Motors very much.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 December 2012 @ 10:24 pm

  10. So what interpretation do I have for your latest cartoon, cpc? You and I have a discussion of Holy Motors, evidently we’re more or less in agreement about it, and then you write a post on your blog in which you give me shit. It’s a kind of cartoon, in which you pose me as a washed-up old hag who hasn’t had any of my novels published. Idnyc too is presented as an old hag in your cartoon, but a hag with 3 books published, and so I’m revealed as envious of idnyc’s superior talents. Then you have idnyc humiliate me by pretending to serve me a meal that turns out to be a dead rat. So what’s the interpretation? Is it that the friendly discussions that idnyc and I have had on the blogs are just me kissing his ass, whereas he is just setting me up for his subsequent humiliation of me? Are you further demonstrating by making this humiliating cartoon that your and my relationship is similarly based on false pretense? E.g., perhaps you pretended to hold Holy Motors in esteem in order to draw me into praising it as a flattering gesture of your superior talent, just so that you could later reveal your contempt for the film — it’s just a cartoon, and a mediocre one at that — and by implication your contempt for me as well. Is my interpretation of your cartoon a further ass-kissing gesture on my part, setting me up for further humiliation at your hands? It’s just a cartoon, you’ll tell me later: why are you trying to eat that dead rat?


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2012 @ 5:39 am

  11. I wrote a response in the e-mail.


    Comment by cpc — 5 December 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  12. In saying that HOLY MOTORS deals in cartoon cliches I didn’t mean to say that those cliches in and of themselves are anything special – just that basically, they are the elements of the world. You can see this already in the Altamira caves. Animation was already being done in prehistoric times. The so-called avant garde art, when it tries to circumvent the cliches, actually CONFIRMS them forcefully. So I think the position of the high-culture vulture who looks down on cliches, and marketing, is erroneous. I am here opposed both to Johnny Stepplin’s endless rant about the lost humanity of art, and to Kim Nicolini’s latest rhapsody on the authenticity and individualism of the lone artist against the system. Subversion is ineffectual if you cannot communicate the message, which remains hermetically sealed in your private world. Which doesn’t automatically mean that all marketing shit is GOOD – there is a shitload of shitty marketing out there, for every Kylie there is ten million goddamn Lana Del Reys, and so on and so forth.

    But pertinent to your own case, thus, I feel that you’re making a mistake in not trying to consider how you could market your books using those cliches, those techniques and strategies. Just like Leos Carax, in fact, who wisely plugs him into his own offbeat and singular vision.I think that COULD be the key to publishing them, of course if publishing is still really your goal in life and I’m not just talking out of my ass.

    Incidentally the Franju film is ALSO an instance of successfully ”intellectualizing” marketing, as Franju himself said in interviews – he wanted to show that you can make a cheap genre like horror smart. Indeed the film as a piece of symbolist poetry is much more interesting than the equivalent Jean Godard stuff that was appearing in the same period.


    Comment by cpc — 5 December 2012 @ 3:15 pm

  13. Okay, I see. Did you catch Scott Bakker’s email posted on Levi’s blog? He acts like it’s a mark of distinction to write genre, to be a man of the people rather than a selfish auteur. Going commercial is a kind of holy calling, and his persecution by those who revile him for writing misogynistic and sadistic content is really a sign of his success in fulfilling his mission.

    I will say this though, from personal experience both positive and negative in fields other than fiction-writing: selling out isn’t as easy as it looks. It’s hard to give the people — or the bankers — what they want even if you try. And then you have to keep doing it day after day, like Oscar. Carax went a long time between movies. I doubt that this one fit the bankers’ formula for a hit. I wonder if he’d tried to sell less commercial art flicks or more commercial same-old-shits during his time between directorial “appointments.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2012 @ 4:57 pm

  14. I didn’t read the Baker (or his novel) but other commentators have already reprimanded Lee-way for not acknowledging the enormous jouissance he derives from all the bitching that surely is THE MOST important reason his blawg launched off, while you and I still get less than 100 cliks in a day. As I said so many times before, the Internets are fuelled by hatred, not love and peace and holdin’ hands together in the sunset.

    I do believe you need to love art more than you love life itself, to stay alive in its cruel realities. I read somewhere it’s been scientifically proven it’s not bookkeepers who die from work-related illnesses, but ARTISTS, whose precarious position on the market causes all manner of dreadful stress. And I think that’s painfully accurate. But it’s time you answered this question for yourself – do you love art that much?


    Comment by cpc — 5 December 2012 @ 5:56 pm

  15. So back to your post at cdc. You’ve presented me as a writer with no published books, envious of someone who has 3 published books but being nice to that person. Presumably in this scene I’m not just being collegial with a fellow writer, like the accordionists in the Holy Motors entr’acte; I’m hoping for some sort of marketplace help from this published author. But the punchline from your setup is that the published author is going to be of no help — quite the opposite, in fact. Is this your sense of self-marketing: that the person you’re selling to, the person you’re hoping will help you sell your stuff, is going to crush you, making it even harder for you to succeed? And I’m also this old hag in your scenario, the implication being that whatever successes I might have had are behind me, that it’s too late for me now. And now you’re asking me if I’m willing to die for art? Is putting up with your post part of the dying to self that’s required, would you say? Is your post intended to help alleviate the dreadful stress of the cruel realities, or to embody it?

    On a secondary note, Ktismatics averages about 450 clicks a day.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  16. I just read your rat post again, cpc, and it’s worse than I remembered. It absolutely is dreadful and cruel, and it’s directed at me. Of course you can post whatever you want on your own blog, and I won’t block your comments here if they’re courteous. But I’m not going to engage with you here in what I regard as earnest conversation about mutual interests, even mutual passions, only to have that inartistic dreck flung at me. I love myself more than that.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  17. I’m pissed enough that I shouldn’t really bother with a response, but I’ll do it because after all you’re my friend. The psychoanalytic meaning of the parody is that you’re asking a neurotic question to the outside world: ”Am I creative?” not realizing that you’re the one who should provide that answer – by creating. I did not imply that you’re too old to succeed in the business. Older age is actually an advantage in writing, due to more psychological finesse and experience. The association is more with Joan Crawford as the nice, good looking, successful sister.

    The quoted neuroticism is annoying, although it is not hurtful, and I think deserves to be satirized from time to time.


    Comment by cpc — 6 December 2012 @ 7:31 pm

  18. (Catching up on Netflix, so…) Just wanna point out that the first appointment is as the beggar woman. When he is told that he has nine appointments, he is also told that that appointment will be his first. So it seems to me that we are to interpret one of his ten appointments as a real event.


    Comment by Joe — 3 April 2013 @ 12:11 am

  19. You’re right, Joe. I think that Carax wants to highlight the vague distinctions between who people really are and the roles they play. The first scene, where the man wakes up in a hotel room and walks through the portal into the movie theater: that scene is played by Carax himself. So presumably it’s a meta scene about filmmaking, as if we’re now in the theater with Carax, watching the screen with him, the movie he made. But he’s also playing a character in his own movie, Carax playing the role of himself. Then we cut abruptly to Oscar leaving his ultramodern house, with voices of children coming from inside and the armed guards outside — that’s presumably his real life. But at the end of the day he goes home to a different house, his family having been transformed into chimps — it’s just another movie set. Because of course the whole thing is a movie, with Oscar being a character on appointment, required to do the bidding of his director. So now is film being presented as a metaphor for life, where we walk through our roles, without realizing that they’re being scripted for us by society, or fate, or the gods?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 April 2013 @ 7:21 am

  20. http://www.lolajournal.com/3/hail_holy_motors_1.html

    I just found these brief meditations on Holy Motors. I’ve read only the first one; the rest, later.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 June 2013 @ 2:40 pm

  21. The best of these short texts is a quotation from Jean Genet, who of course never saw the film:

    “In the world there exists, and there has only ever existed, one man. He is in each of us in entirety; thus he is ourselves. Each is the other and all others. Except that a phenomenon, for which I do not even know the name, seems to infinitely divide this single man, splits him into the accidents of appearance, and renders each of the fragments foreign to ourselves.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 June 2013 @ 1:33 pm

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