A man wakes up with a dog in a strange room where silvery trees line the wallpaper. He finds a keyhole, fortunately he is uniquely gifted to open the door with the key which is grafted into his hand like a middle finger. Exiting, the walls flicker and walking down the corridor a movie is playing, an audience below watches with blank expressions. As the key-fingered man (who seems to have woken up in the projection booth) watches, a girl stares back at him from the silver screen, fading away on a space-age boat. Suddenly, the porthole becomes a window and a whole new narrative begins. It is unclear, deliberately, which movie we are in and indeed which audience we are. Are we the ones watching Holy Motors or have we become the mindless audience watching the silver screen within the film? Certainly it matters little except to show we cannot be sure of our perspective anymore, nor will it be the last time we feel this way.
Holy Motors is, rightly, set in Paris—a city of gorgeous statue and history ever fading into the past. The roads are not crowded, permitting the actor’s limousine to pass wherever it wishes. While no location in the film is empty, most are sparsely populated. To continue the modern trend, it appears that fewer people are working more jobs to keep the city afloat. The times were we see crowds they are spectators, not workers. Again, we are confronted with the image of blank faces in a dark room, awaiting consumption of images. This is a visual culture at its terminus, a culture numbed by experiencing whatever it wants. In a pivotal scene, the model Kay M is photographed as Athena in an old cemetery. The photographer is enraptured, repeating the word “beauty” over and over as he finds newer, better angles. Suddenly, the actor appears as a dwarf, bursting onto the scene and demanding attention. Again, the photographer is amazed and changes his script to the word “weird.”
Why these mono-syllabic appraisals? In a world of image-saturation and minute attention-spans is one word all that is needed to capture an audience’s sentiment? Or, if a picture is worth a thousand words, does it not matter what is said so long as the image is robust? Either way, here and elsewhere Holy Motors presents a world without criticism or conversation, merely consumption. What are the consequences of such a world?
As we find out in the course of the film, our protagonist is an actor of the future, playing nine roles a day for a host of invisible cameras. His dressing room is a limousine and he does his own makeup and stunts. In the middle of his day, he speaks with his employer and laments the loss of the visible camera. Asked why he continues his work, he replies “the beauty of the act.” His employer responds that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, to which the actor wonders “And if there’s no more beholder?”
Are watching and beholding the same? Throughout the film there seem to be plenty of people to watch his performances but, perhaps, no one to actually behold them. There is no time for engagement, moreover there is (same as now) a persistent need for technological nuance. CGI is still in vogue; the actor spends his morning in a motion-capture studio acting out battle scenes and, after, an acrobatic sex scene which is shown mapped as pornographic dragon intercourse…Prop weapons have also upgraded, appearing to kill in live performances, perhaps they even do. Human life, in this economically-driven future, is cheap and seems almost repetitive as the actor encounters a few individuals that seem to be his clones (or is he a clone of them?). Perhaps they are simply markers of his competition or perhaps they are alternate selves burned in his psyche, including the successful banker who has time to enjoy dinner at a cafe while the actor is speeding by to his next appointment. Is there a classist critique enjoined here? The experience of Holy Motors is not one of patent analysis but rather of constant puzzlement, a wondering after what scripts might be being presented until they are contradicted in the next scene.
There appears to be nothing to people outside of their jobs. The actor, seemingly, never goes home or even has one; his last assignment of the day is to go home to a pre-written family—he is given cards as to who his wife is and the names of his children. His driver, likewise, dons a mask as she leaves the limousine even though she places a call and promises to arrive at home (but as who?).
In another telling scene, the dwarf—after kidnapping the model from her photo shoot—tears fabric from her dress and begins to re-imagine her. She becomes his canvas, first walking an invisible runway in a shimmering niqab. After that, she becomes the Madonna as he lays down in a grotesque appropriation of Christ’s corpse. Like the actor, Kay M has little anchoring identity other than her brand of cigarettes; she is constantly adapting (or being adapted) to new scenarios.
As I’ve already mentioned, the actor plays nine roles in a single day, acting out scenes or sequences that may or may not be part of larger narratives. We are told that these are being filmed by hidden cameras, what is unclear is how they are distributed, whether editing into larger wholes or offered as vignettes to a society, again, with minimal attention-spans. Regardless, each identity is disconnected from the next and there is no “real” individual behind the masks. Each iteration is merely another performance.
And yet this cycle is broken for a moment, twenty minutes to be exact, when the actor literally runs into the limousine of his former partner, a woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Here, however, as they wander through the remains of a bankrupted mall, the fragmentation is even worse–a love lost or thrown away, the mention of a child also lost in time. When “real” life is so heartbreaking, all that is left is to escape into fantasy or into craft. Perhaps, then, the blank consumerism and entertainment culture which seem to fuel the actor’s market are symptoms rather than causes—symptoms of underlying pain that cannot be uncovered. In such a world, images are an opiate, a balm as easily abused as the other drugs which are peppered through the film.
The world depicted in Holy Motors is thoroughly recognizable, perhaps only years away. It is a bleak portrait and a hard film to watch, one that gives scant clues as to the direction of its plot and that develops characters only to abandon them moments later. It is, for that reason, a film that requires viewing; it obstructs consumption through familiar scripts but demands to be attended to on its own terms. The images and scenes have stayed with me in the years since I first saw the film, spurring me to take it up again for criticism. While difficult, criticism of Holy Motors is nevertheless rewarding and, in a way, timely. While many of the societal struggles presented in the film are real and possibly intractable, we do not have to allow mindless consumption to eliminate any possibility for conversation about art. This here is simply one such attempt.