Fast-forward to the end of the screening, and my immediate question was not "what the fuck did I just see" (a question most of the audience seemed to have), but this: why am I so sad?
And why the hell is nobody else reacting like this?
Maybe it's where my brain was. NZFF 2012 was a festival, as I've noted elsewhere, characterized by the transition from film to digital, DCP stepping in for film, works like SIDE BY SIDE (which I skipped watching but couldn't avoid hearing about) analyzing the trend, TABU sending a love letter to cinema's past, and TWO YEARS AT SEA waving goodbye to the physical medium of film altogether. HOLY MOTORS, not content with these challenges, took things a step further, and imagined a near-future world where the apparatus of cinema is vanishing completely. That it's often hilarious as fuck and relentlessly inventive is true, but it's often funny in the way Samuel Beckett is funny, maybe: in service of a bleaker truth.
I've only seen HOLY MOTORS once, and I'm bound to get some details wrong, but herewith, a spoiler-filled discussion of what I saw in this film. (Well, until I bailed. You'll see.)
SETUP: We meet an older man, alone, in his room. (This man, as it transpires, is the director Leos Carax.) Hidden away in his room is a secret door to a cinema. This is the only cinema we see in the film. Am I right in remembering the audience sleeping? Perhaps not. Regardless, it's disconnected from the world. Is this where the films that we see are going - to a hidden audience - or is this (more likely) the tomb of the cinema audience of the past? A black dog roams the audience - a guard dog, like you'd find at a deserted warehouse, perhaps? Or is there other symbolic freight here?
(Incidentally, Drew McWeeny's review, which is pretty insightful and great albeit seemingly unwilling to address the obsolesence of cinema as more than just a possible reading, reminds me that the film starts with early Meuybridge photography. It's the birth of film, and perhaps it's not unreasonable to read this opening as the dateline on a tombstone, showing the birth and death, before we get to the epitaph.)
MEET THE ACTOR: Somehow (the precise shot order eludes me) we get to a lovely house with sports cars that the actor, Denis Lavant, emerges from. We are led to believe that this is his home, and therefore he is well compensated for his work. (But is it? Bear in mind when we flash forward for the night he winds up in another home entirely, and as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the boundary of the films is not as clear as the inside/outside of the limousine that appears to be the organizing principle.)
With only a limo driver as staff, seemingly, he prepares for his first job, and like many things in HOLY MOTORS, parallels should be made with that which is absent. He does not have a hair and makeup department. He does not have a director. He does not have a camera crew, and as he arrives on site in an old woman's costume, no crew whatsoever are apparent. For some reason, I think all the great films about filmmaking (DAY FOR NIGHT and 8 1/2 spring immediately to mind), and how they take as their principal text the nature of the filmmaking family: the group of people that must come together to make a film happen. With the exception of the singular indulgence of the driver, and one other forthcoming character, we never see any non-actors involved in making these films. (Again, as I recall. Correct me if I'm wrong on this or any point.)
PERFORMANCE #1: It's difficult to work out on a first viewing the entire schema for what Carax is trying to do with his choices of scenes, but I think that the sheer variety of textures and stories that he chooses are meant to reflect the cliches and limitations of cinema. Nonetheless, things must be ordered for a reason, and it seems like a thesis statement for the film that the actor's very first performance is of an elderly woman, alone, ignored on the street. Metaphor for film as it once was?
PERFORMANCE #2: there's clearly a dialectic intended between the first performance, reliant on makeup, and this, its total opposite: a performance in a green-screen. Actors enter one by one, exit without interacting with each other. This scene is of course an amazing demonstration of Lavant's physicality, but it's equally noteworthy photographically: in that the images captured of the performance of Lavant bounding about in motion capture are far more striking than the CGI results, not just in this film but virtually any film I can think of. This reaches its apex when a second performer, a contortionist, joins, and Lavant and her are joined in stunning physical twists and turns, whilst simultaneously transformed into laughable serpent gods having sex.
Again, humans (apart from a disembodied voice, which may or may not be human) are absent from the means of production.
PERFORMANCE #3: And the Godzilla music hits the screen, whilst we have allusions to LA BELLE ET LA BETE and KING KONG as the monster attacks. Here, I decided that Carax was exploring every genre and turning it inside out (a decision that later scenes, perhaps, made me equivocate). As this went on, I found this more and more a bleak, trenchant commentary on the limits of genre: by seeing something so outside our expectations within that genre, we were reminded just how entrenched the rules of each genre were, how ossified our expectations of cinema had become.
But that darkness would settle in later. There's no question this section is a glorious goof, and I think it's here that many viewers decide just to take this film as a comedy. (It's quite significant in this context, though, that the subsequent scene, of a cab driver picking up his daughter from a party, is almost mirth-free: a needed corrective.) But it's also the first place where the reality of what we're seeing starts to break down: when a fashion photographer's assistant's fingers are bitten off, there's no sense that it's fake. It's actually quite scary, as we still don't even know the ground rules at this point: is this an actor intruding into other's lives? We eventually learn of invisible cameras, but here is our first (and not last) sign of invisible special effects artists.
It's also quite a mean-spirited moment - the assistant isn't THAT terrible of a person, as I recall - and one where I perhaps in retrospect feel the anger overwhelming the silliness. And if I'm not wrong, it's somewhere in this section where if I recall correctly we first see the Pont-Neuf, the site of Carax's career Waterloo (I mean this in terms of his ability to get films made). Is there a connection here? Is there something to be made of the fact that, whilst the film being made has no real crew (and Carax, more than likely, has a crew a shadow of the size of his old crews), the insipid fashion photographer has a gigantic supplemental entourage?
… and this is the point where I would love to continue, but I'm reasonably confident that I can't do a great job without a second viewing (possibly even with one, but anyway), and this terrific piece captured more eloquently than I many similar points, and so, I intended to abandon it, or perhaps revisit on a second viewing. But upon (bizarrely enough) popular request, I do want to publish and finish this, in order to address the ending.
To contextualize broadly: the visible apparatus of filmmaking only consists of two visible elements in the end of the film: the white limousines and the people who travel in them. (The cameras have all been left in an abandoned building, the one Kylie fell from. [Which McWeeny points out is possibly a reference to Carax's wife, Katerina Golubeva, who committed suicide last year.] If I remember correctly, it's after this scene that the digital nightmare invades our actor's dreams.) After leaving the actor Alex in his last role for the night (with a chimpanzee, or perhaps monkey, family, I can't recall - endearingly goofy, but also deeply cynical in its address of the cinematic gesture of evoking an emotion of narrative completion, and perhaps a hint that the future of filmmaking doesn't even require other human participants?), the limousines return to their home at Holy Motors. The driver, Celine (played by Edith Scob), leaves the car, wearing the mask that she wore in EYES WITHOUT A FACE 50 years ago (simply an allusion to cinema history, like many others in the film? or an allusion to a further absence?), and disappearing away.
And then, quite unexpectedly, the limos talk to each other.
One person I spoke to afterwards said something to the extent of "I was with that film til the last scene, but Carax was just trolling us then, wasn't he?" Even people who love it see it, as near as I can tell, as a goofy fun digestif to a buffet of cinematic joy.
But beyond the superficial absurdity, in a film where there are no other humans left to talk about the filmmaking appartus with, these machines are noting that they, too, are about to become extinct, just like the cameramen and makeup artists before them. And in a world where cinema has been reduced to such a bare existence, if these limousines are removed, these holy motors, what is left to drive cinema forward?
Result: fin du cinema.
And maybe this is all too bleak and/or overdetermined of a reading. I get films wrong often, when what I expect collides with what I get (DRIVE and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK being two films I completely misread on first viewings). And I don't mean to imply that I didn't laugh a lot and viscerally enjoy many scenes in HOLY MOTORS, because I did. But I can't reconcile the seemingly popular interpretation of this as a simply joyful, ecstatic, goofy, playful, fun film with the contents on screen, and I certainly don't see it (as some NZFF viewers did) as a funny goof with no organizing principle.
But with such a rich movie, I'm sure that it doesn't give up all its secrets with one viewing, and I can't wait to return.