11/03/12 - Egyptian, 7:00 p.m.
11/06/12 - Chinese 2, 1:30 p.m.
By Samuel Anderson
HOLY MOTORS functions entirely according to its own logic, from its first moments sweeping us into a world unlike that of any other film. But despite the sense we may have of seeing images that spring from deep within someone’s subconscious, the film’s logic is much closer to that of insomnia than that of dreams.
Léos Carax himself rises from bed in the middle of the night, inside an anonymous hotel room overlooking an airport — a place that feels like the edge of the world. Carax credits himself as playing ‘The Sleeper,’ but he appears, before rising, to sleep uncomfortably, if at all. He gives the impression, in fact, of playing an aged version of ‘The Voyeur,’ the name under which he made a cameo in his early masterpiece MAUVAIS SANG (1986) — the nighttime wanderer, spying on the film’s proceedings. Here, discovering a passageway, which he unlocks with a finger-become-key, he finds his way to the balcony of a theater, where the audience appears to be either asleep or dead. He gazes — perhaps with indifference, perhaps with longing — at the screen, appearing to be the only one conscious of what plays there.
If this opening sequence takes its place among the most haunting in recent cinema it is in large part due to this sense of a fitful sleep turned into a harrowed wakefulness. Through it, Carax invites us to share in the peculiar clarity that emerges from a man’s restlessness.
What follows is the journey, beginning at dawn and going long into the night, of M. Oscar (Denis Lavant), an actor of sorts, shuttled from performance to performance in a limo/dressing room. Though he is hired to play various identities, it is unclear for whom he performs. In fact, these roles are initially characterized by their invisibility: a businessman who sounds like a covert arms dealer; a beggar woman, ignored by passers-by; a motion-capture performer whose body will be digitally transformed into a phallic monster. But gradually, his performances become more personal in nature; centered on a series of intimate encounters, they suggest that the performers may also be their own audience.
Long among the most remarkably physical of actors, Lavant here gives one of cinema’s defining performances. Not a gesture, it seems, is without significance; each illuminates an element of the film’s universe, guiding us further into an experience of waking to a world of which we have been unconscious.
On the level of montage and mise-en-scène, the film takes many of its cues from Lavant. The camera holds itself tight to the movement of his body, while, mirroring his taut performance, each shot and each cut — each cinematic gesture — serves the purpose of either propelling the narrative forward or making an emotion more profound. Such control is, perhaps above all else, why the film has the feel of a waking vision rather than a dream. Often obscure in its reasoning, it traces out its contours with a precision that, however wild things may be at the moment, suggests it is driven much more by conscious intent than by unhinged irrationality.
This efficiency does not, however, mean that the film is dominated by a cold rationality. As with his previous works, Carax has made a film of a deeply personal mark, not only in the myriad autobiographical references he inscribes, but even more so by the rawness that characterizes it, the impression it gives of springing directly from his experience of life. Perhaps, indeed, ‘personal’ is not even the right word to describe this dynamic, for it entails losing oneself in the film in order to give shape to a specific way of thinking in cinema that exceeds measured reflection. To return to that initial image of Carax looking over the unconscious audience, this is a kind of cinema that does not seek to weave another dream for us; rather, it seeks to awaken us to a new form of experience.
Samuel Anderson is a writer and film producer based in Brooklyn, NY. His feature film projects include MUNYURANGABO (AFI FEST 2007) and ABIGAIL HARM (2012).