Stretch Limo Cinema
**This review contains mild spoilers**
Monsieur Oscar may have the oddest job ever invented.
Every morning, he hits the road in a white stretch limo to make a series of appointments before the day is done. In the backseat is a makeshift dressing room complete with lighted mirror, makeup kit and chests full of costumes, all of which are used to drastically transform his appearance at each stop. Every appointment requires Oscar to leave the limo and become involved in a situation, the context of which is unknown. First he is an old woman begging for coins on a Parisian boardwalk. Then he is a motion capture avatar fighting digital foes in a simulation room. Over the course of the day, he becomes assassin and musician, father and uncle, monster and lover.
Monsieur Oscar is a film actor.
And thus begins our descent into the maddening and mysterious world of Holy Motors, a movie so strange that I couldn’t possibly discuss it without divulging some key plot points. Indeed, most of the film runs on pure faith – we don’t find out that Oscar’s a film actor until about halfway through (though we might’ve had an inkling); by that point, the story had already skirted along the edges of lunacy for over an hour. If you desire to finish this review, you can rest assured that it won’t spoil every gambit the movie has to offer. If you wish to enter the film blind, however, read no further, though be warned: you’re in for a shot of cinematic insanity.
And I don’t use the word “cinematic” lightly either. Holy Motors is as much a movie about movies as any you’ll ever see, though it reveals its true nature subtly and not quite entirely. It is an elegiac but reverent allegory of film as an industry, an art form and a sublime experiential phenomenon. The story, which comprises a lineup of surrealistic vignettes, takes place in an odd dystopian universe where film studios have monopolized reality. Microscopic cameras are embedded everywhere to track actors’ every move, turning the professionals’ lives into an ongoing stream of cinema. The line separating life and the movie set has virtually disappeared. It’s Big Brother gone to the movies, a reinstatement of the Hollywood studio system to unsettling extremes.
None feel the burdens of this system more than actors like Oscar, who are required to move from one appointment to the next with exhausting resiliency. As Oscar, Denis Lavant is startlingly versatile as he cycles through the multitude of roles his character has to play, leaping from virile ferocity to emotional fragility with an air of grace under pressure. Even so, we sense a fatigue settling into Oscar’s bones, a veteran of the trade at the brink of retirement or even collapse.
The range of Lavant’s performance is further emphasized by the protean nature of Oscar’s appointments, which altogether encompass at least six or seven versions of traditional movie genres. That said, each of these scenes feel uniquely unconventional, tripping on a dangerous dosage of quirk and kooky abandon. In one scene, Oscar emerges from the limo sporting a sickly green suit, a growth of scraggly brown hair and a fake eye on the verge of oozing pus. One of the film’s “Musical” sequences features a crew of pseudo-Celtic street musicians parading through an empty church with accordions, pipes and electric guitars. Sometimes the movie slips too far into its fascinating but somewhat self-indulgent peculiarities, but overall Holy Motors evokes a distinctive vision that perhaps channels the messy madness of the film industry, and also the ability of movies to spellbind us with the experience of unrealities.
This latter point moves us into the film’s most ingenious maneuver, which begins by developing the concept of cinema as a form of deception. The movie’s opening shot is of a faceless mass within a darkened movie theater – the film viewers in the diegetic world of Holy Motors. That we are viewing the viewers is a neat meta-cinematic hint from director Leos Carax that we should be paying attention to how we watch the movie, and that we have been given a privileged eye to the events within the film.
This detail becomes especially important when we consider the setting of the limo, which acts as a behind-the-scenes environment and seems to be the only place where Monsieur Oscar can avoid the scrutiny of the diegetic film viewers. But not ours. Thus, Oscar the actor and Lavant, the actor playing the character, become blurred together. To what degree is Oscar/Lavant putting on a show for the diegetic viewers, and to what degree for us? We may think we are seeing “the truth” in the limo, but we must remember that that too is a performance.
This concept of deception and performance translates deftly into an intriguing metaphor on human duplicity in a societal context. Every day we “perform” for our seeming “viewers” or spectators i.e. everyone around us. Like the ubiquitous cameras in Holy Motors, we often believe we are being observed constantly by society’s judgmental eye and so present ourselves accordingly.
It is in this manner the film presents Oscar – constantly deceiving, and always illusory. Many times, the movie leads us to believe that he has dropped his actor’s façade and left the movie set, only to frustrate our expectations. We begin to wonder whether anything in the movie’s real, whether Oscar really has a home or a family, or whether he ever stops acting. By the end of the movie, we realize we have no idea who Oscar really is. He adopts so many identities through his myriad roles but ultimately emerges without an identity of his own, a phantom character that vanishes into the night. The practice of art has overtaken this society, rendering humanity, ironically the source of art’s creation, obsolete.
It is this detail that makes up Holy Motors’ central caveat and comprises the film’s overarching sadness. In a world where lavish filmmaking technologies run rampant and profit is the primary drive of film production, the humanity of art is often forgotten and even lost. Carax’s vision of a muted, spiritually vapid society seems to reflect an anxiety about the soul of contemporary moviemaking. While his dystopian worldview may emerge unduly pessimistic, his point is valid and urgent, for art itself is an ever-valid, ever-urgent enterprise. To lose touch with its essence is to lose a fundamental element of the human experience.