On its surface, this absurdist ode to analog's death at digital's hands seems to echo a number of recent essays eager to perform the last rites on cinema, or at least on its status as our dominant dream factory. Yet Holy Motors is such a bravura, go-for-broke exploration of what movies can do—is so thrillingly, defiantly alive—that it contradicts its own mournful thesis at every turn. (Critics who saw its world première at this year's Cannes Film Festival cheered with unaccustomed vigor, as if Carax had just single-handedly saved the medium.) Taking its cue from its chameleonic lead actor, Denis Lavant (best known in the U.S. as the lead in Claire Denis' Beau Travail), the film giddily reinvents itself scene by scene, suggesting infinite possibilities even as the superstructure insists they they're all heading for the same dead end. It's a glorious dream-epitaph.
I suppose I was trying to describe the experience of being alive in the internet world. The different lives we are able to live. The fatigue of being oneself. We all get a little tired of being ourselves sometimes. The answer is to reinvent yourself, but how do you do that and what is the cost?
It is a paean, not just to how wonderful movies ARE, but to how wonderful they CAN BE. At pretty much all points, it delights in going to someplace that, from the context the film's already given you, is more fantastic than you imagine it'll let itself going. The whole thing gets sillier and sillier as it goes on – I can't think of another movie that has ending scenes as absurd and as goofy as the two that end this one.
But it's not the sort of ultra-introverted movie navelgazing that you get from Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, where the point of the film is in part to examine cinema's relationship to society. There are bits commenting about cameras and movie theaters, but they're not the meat of the story, they're the bones that give the meat a sense of direction.
The vignettes themselves deal really powerfully with exclusion and separation, with detachedness, with characters who in part feel themselves to be mere bodies in a space with no distinct purpose. The funny ones tend to deal with characters who are more blatantly out-of-place; the two most somber ones, which might resonate much longer with me, work around the fact that we know very well they're vignettes without context or further elaboration. There's something powerful about seeing a man assume a role of tenderness or intimacy, only to abandon it to become a blank face again, a body to fit into yet another sequence.
In a sense, it could be read as nihilistic; but the humor, I think, is so central to the film that it ultimately comes off as a warm and loving message. If the question asked is, "What meaning is there to these moments once they are over," and the answer is, "Perhaps nothing," then it's not questioning the meaning of those moments, it's proving how powerful those moments are – and they're even more powerful because they exist, they exist, and then they are gone, and they do not come back.
The struggle the main character faces, in some ways, is "What do I do?", and as he goes through each role, he is confronted with somebody who tells him that perhaps he is not as committed to the roles as he once was. Sometimes he may not even be believable. It matters that he be believed – for whose sake? Why, for the sake of the moment itself and for everybody who witnesses it. Perhaps for no other reason – but then, what other reason could there be?
There are discussions, also, about machines, which grow smaller and smaller, until they cannot be seen at all. The first time I saw the movie, I took the film at its face value and thought it was a meta-commentary, it was a discussion of cinema itself, a critique of digital in favor of film – but the director doesn't want his movie to be a film about filmmaking, and I'll take him at his word that he truly means to discuss something more. Thinking about the movie on second re-watch, I think rather that these machines fit into the greater, more universal themes of the film. Why should it matter that we see a motor, that we feel a machine's presence? Simply so that we know that it's THERE. When we're conspicuously in their presence, we are constantly aware of them, aware of their function, aware of their power. Then they disappear and perhaps we take them for granted, perhaps they stop meaning anything at all.
Which in itself is a straightforward commentary on digital cameras, on machines which move us in ways invisible to the senses. But it's also saying much, much more. The vignettes matter not because they're interesting subjects to shoot, but because they're powerful moments in their own right; if the film says something about the future of filmmaking, it's simply by reminding us that movies are about more than just going to the movies: they make things visible to us so that we can recognize, and appreciate, their movement. There's a sacredness to that showing, momentous in the literal sense that it dominates us for the moment.
It is a funny, funny film. It has moving sequences. It has several moments that simply caught my breath. But the real joy is how it puts these engaging bits together in such a strange way, so that you don't immediately recognize the nature of their movement. Until you think about each part in turn, think about how each one moved you so singularly and so self-containedly, yet how none of the sequences were either singular and self-contained, and then you see, simply, that they move.
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