In Holy Motors, French filmmaker Léos Carax presents an actor named Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) who spends the whole film raging, as Dylan Thomas famously wrote, “against the dying of the light”—specifically the dying light of cinema as he once knew it. Actually, “rage” is a fairly inaccurate way of describing the way Oscar himself pursues his passion even without any cameras to film his performances; his demeanor as he sits in the back of a limousine traveling to and from his various acting “appointments” more often reminds one of Samuel Beckett’s famous expression of weary existentialism: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
But go on Oscar does, in a series of tableaux that, in their own wildly varied ways, feel less like a funeral for the pre-digital era of cinema than a heartening attempt to snatch personal victories from the jaws of larger defeat. An early episode in Holy Motors turns digital motion-capture technology into a hilarious physical burlesque, as, in a pitch-black room illuminated only by digital matte backgrounds and the sensors on his torso, Oscar busts out karate moves, runs on a treadmill only to fall off of it, and then simulates sex with a fellow female actress. In the subsequent episode, Carax revisits “Merde,” his recent contribution to the 2008 omnibus Tokyo!, reviving the spastic woman-licking, flower-munching troglodyte Monsieur Merde and unleashing him in Paris, to eventually kidnap and, in his own repulsive way, seduce a model (Eva Mendes). Other episodes, however, are triumphant in quieter ways. A deathbed scene at a hotel generates deep emotion in the moment; a subsequent meeting with a former flame (Kylie Minogue) palpably trembles with the suggestion of previous unresolved romantic tensions, broken only when the woman suddenly breaks out into song and the film itself momentarily turns into a musical.
The anything-goes spirit Carax and the ever-game Lavant embody in Holy Motors sure is something to experience, and the film is nothing if not genuinely unpredictable moment to moment. Under the mercurial surface, however, lies a sorrowful heart. Oscar briefly gives explicit voice to his mindset in the one scene he shares with veteran French actor Michel Piccoli, in which Piccoli’s unnamed boss-with-a-birthmark provokes him to explain how he soldiers forward with acting even as the cameras have gotten so small that, as he says, “now we don’t even see them at all.” Oscar’s melancholy runs deeper than just that one scene, however; one could argue that it seeps into all of the performances he gives on this day. Driving his daughter (or is it merely a young actress playing a daughter figure?) home after a party, Oscar catches her in a lie and offers as punishment the prospect of “[having] to live with yourself,” and in the the wistful way Lavant delivers the line, one can’t help but wonder just how much of his own self-pitying self he’s bringing to that performance. More directly, there’s that moment after the deathbed scene has ended, in which Oscar tries to reach out to Elise (Elise Lhomeau), the actress playing opposite him, and forge some kind of real human connection beyond just two actors playing parts.
Real versus “reel.” Such is the animating dichotomy Carax plays with throughout Holy Motors, though the film is arguably more intriguing, even uplifting when it applies this theme to the realm of actors and performances than it is when applying it to all of cinema. Carax is hardly the first to bemoan a perceived lack of “authenticity” in increasingly ubiquitous digital cinema, waxing nostalgically about the good ol’ days of analogue filmmaking; film critics/cinephiles have been lodging these kinds of complaints for years now—and still are, if the recent rash of “death of film/film criticism” literature is any indication. Holy Motors takes this nostalgic attitude as received wisdom, and it has the effect of adding an ironic veneer to even the most emotionally affecting of individual sequences that some might find off-putting, if not outright nihilistic.
But no film as full of creative energy and imagination as this one can be said to be entirely nihilistic. A more valuable way to look at Holy Motors, then, is on the more intimate level of a character study: a Brechtian contemplation of an actor who gives so much of himself in his performances that, for him, real life and acting merge until they become inextricable. For Monsieur Oscar—and, one might assume, for Lavant himself—acting is life; it’s all he knows how to do, and he puts so much of himself into it that one starts to wonder where acting ends and personal truth begins. Even if he believes the cinema he once knew and loved is on its way out, he will continue to practice his trade simply “for the beauty of the gesture.” Sentimental? Sure, but it’s his way of reminding himself that he’s still alive and kicking. More than merely a look at cinema’s past, present, and future, the melancholy yet exuberant Holy Motors is a tribute to the damn-it-all enduring spirit of creative passion.
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.