The many holy faces of humanity


Holy Motors (MA). Director: Leos Carax. Starring: Denis Lavant. 115 minutes

A man (Lavant) is picked up from a luxurious rural home by a limousine. He asks his driver-secretary how many appointments he has; nine, he is told. Weary before he has begun, the man begins a slow process of transformation in front of a lighted dressing-room mirror mounted in the back of the limo. What follows in this elaborately allegorical film is a portrayal of a most unusual day in which the only constant is transformation.

One moment the man is an elderly beggar woman, so agonisingly stooped that all 'she' sees of the world is 'stones and feet'. Next he is a motion capture artist, clad in a black body-stocking studded with sensors, miming the gestures of sex and combat to be digitally transmuted into anime. The old woman and the stuntman reveal the man's total control over his physical self, though his psychological and spiritual selves remain indistinct.

Next he is a monstrous vagrant, who crawls out of a sewer and terrorises passers-by with hilarious ferocity. He desecrates a fashion shoot in a graveyard (which itself is surely a kind of desecration), brutally assaulting a photographer before absconding with the swooning model. Back in the sewer they are beauty and the beast, as she recognises vulnerability and tenderness beneath his frightening veneer.

It is obvious by now that the man's existence is not what we'd describe as normal; not unique either though, because there are indications that there are others — perhaps many — who are rolling around in limousines and living similar chameleonic lives. At one moment he is a father belittling his teenage daughter to the point of tears; the next, a dangerous mobster; then an old man bonding with his granddaughter on his deathbed.

The face of the film changes, too, with that of its central character. So that now it is D-grade horror, now it is domestic drama, now it is a violent thriller, and now it is a Hollywood musical (Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue appears here, speaking French, as a fellow chameleon with whom the man shares a painful past — unless this, too, is another performance). The film traverses this diverse terrain with great cinematic poise.

The man integrates just as seamlessly with his environments, and others interact with him as if this — this — is his true face. Then he returns to the limousine, undergoes a transformation through makeup and costume, studies the file for his next appointment, and begins all over again. The film is endlessly cryptic: during two appointments the man is mortally wounded, but each time he returns to the limousine unscathed.

So what exactly is going on? Director Carax's screenplay is certainly enigmatic. It does dawn on you that the 'home' the man goes to at night is not the 'home' he was picked up from in the morning. 'Home' then is merely another 'appointment'. This is not a job but the totality of the man's existence. A slightly silly postscript affirms what is already clear: that the man is not and will never be master of his own destiny.

The film has more to offer than fatalism though. Is it an allegory for the plight of the wretched artist, who gives himself totally to, and so is utterly consumed by, his work? Such a reading is valid, and ascribes a certain level of self-indulgence to Carax. But equally, Holy Motors is an eloquent discourse on the roles that we all play, and the physical and emotional trauma of remaking ourselves to fit our own and others' expectations in a given situation.

That sounds a tad trite on paper, but in truth Holy Motors is fascinating, and packed with humour and terror and innumerable small insights. Each time the man recreates himself he is reborn, and each rebirth brings with it endless possibilities. This in itself is an inherently hopeful conceit, though in Holy Motors hope is invariably supplanted by despair. In this it is perhaps best viewed as a cautionary tale. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Holy Motors, Denis Lavant, Leos Crax



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Existing comments

Thank you for an intriguing sensitive review Tim.

Vacy Vlazna | 23 August 2012  

The actor Cate Blanchett when questioned about the person behind all her personae, once said: "I'm more interested in the character than I am in myself." And "But that's the fun of the job. You enter into dangerous territory, safely." Insightful observations from a professional actor (and one of the finest). For us 'ordinary' people the roles we juggle may well take us into dangerous territory, and perhaps we never emerge unscathed. We may need to consider (and I quote Peter Conrad) 'that the frailties of humankind are being studied, inquisitively and with infinite compassion, from a position somewhere outside or above the world in which our messy tragicomedy takes place'. Maybe I'd only consider seeing this film after a particularly soothing yoga session!

Pam | 23 August 2012  

Interesting film for students???. N.

Noeline Champion | 23 August 2012  

Another navel-gazing film which places man at the pinnacle instead of God, The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost.

trent | 23 August 2012  

It's amazing what a mitre can do to haven't you noticed? Even a zucchetto in some instances, depending on the shape of ones face. A good example is that of Bishop of Ballarat recently in the Courier, so charming and disarming.

L Newington | 26 August 2012  

Well Trent, the reason lots of films are so human-centred (what you call play man at the pinnacle) is because we are still on earth - where humans reside - and not yet in heaven. Maybe you could suggest a film plot involving the Father Son and Holy Ghost.

AURELIUS | 28 August 2012  

I am signing up to see this one. A fascinating discourse on humanity. What sort of life do we get? Is it really self serve! There is so much that is already written ie your DNA, geography, genetic wiring. Hope it is on longer than 1 week.

Jenny Esots | 30 August 2012  

I loved the 'silly' postscript! What defines us more than transport? Such a cool, and such an inutterably French, film.

Penelope | 16 September 2012  

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