April 2013 Filed in: Films
This is the kind of film that allows my thoughts to repose. It’s like what one does before they fall asleep at the end of the day. All the thoughts in the head float about listlessly, too tired to organize themselves, until sleep lulls them into the unconscious, where they morph into dreams and drift into the void. Each sequence in the film is a thought, a scene from a different story that lets on some truth or alludes to some mystery; but before it fully reveals itself, it disappears into the unknown.
It’s a simple story with a linear narrative structure and conventional character arc, and yet, its treatment is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s proposition that we must arrange our waking life the same way we do our dreams. Nothing resembles the freewheeling visions of dreams more than cinema. When cinema was first popularized, it was hyped as the dream factory that allows us to penetrate the world of our repressed unconscious. Filmmakers meant to give meaning to the garbled imagery in our dreams, and further justify our primal and transgressive desires. Dreams became the most common narrative device.
Ergo, Holy Motors, which pays homage to the cinematic medium, begins with the very first films ever made; followed by a scene of “le dormeur” (a sleeper), who wakes up from his sleep but remains in something of a dream state. He unlocks a door with his metallic phallic middle finger, tears open the two-dimensional screen, and breaks into the cinematic world. This alludes to our love for and the transportative powers of cinema. What happens after that, where we can’t tell dream from reality is what Christian Metz, the famous french theorist calls ‘perceptual transference’.
At its simplest, the story is about a day in the life of a seasoned actor. A chauffeur drives him around Paris to his performance locations in a luxurious limousine car packed with costumes. On the way to each location, he reads a brief about the role he is about to perform, and methodically dresses for the part. He then gets out of the limousine, performs his bit, and gets back in the limousine and moves on to the next location. In total, he plays nine different personas, in nine very different projects. In one he plays a homeless old woman, in another a father to an insecure adolescent, then a dying man, a murderous doppelganger, a humanist boy toy making passionate love to woman in a motion-capture suit that eventually reveals itself as a duel between two animated beasts in a visual simulator, a grotesque manikin who role-plays various priapic vignettes with an impassioned model. Each acting gig outdoes the other in outlandishness. Then there are scenes of the actor when he is not performing, which are equally compelling; like one where he bumps into his world-weary ex-lover from the same profession who melodiously expresses her existential angst to him before killing herself.
The film is full of allusions to many art-forms, and filmic genres presented in chronological order from old silent films to science fiction, and themes of life and death from young adulthood to old age and the impermanence of relationships. Some of his roles dawdle between the real and the absurd. Even when you see his larger-than-life persona interacting with the real world, he exhibits a befuddling unworldliness that belongs in some place mythical; And for all that, there isn’t the slightest indication of a camera, film crew, set or stage being present (the chauffeur and limousine seem to symbolically represent the whole production team; In the end the limousines also seem to represent the end the celluloid era).
In a way the lack of cameras around the protagonist draws attention to the artificiality of the scenes more than if they had been present. At the same time their absence presents the antithesis to our views on the perceptive nature of the camera lens. In the film, it also leads to the protagonist’s real identity getting mixed up with the characters he portrays, and therefore the perceptual transference that the audience experiences is also felt by the character! He’s a man whose vocation is clearly consuming him. He looks sapped at the end of each performance, including after impassioned scenes suggesting eros. Every scene is sexually allegorical, blending surrealism with humanism and satire. There’s always the clash between the conscious and the subconscious, the logical and the illogical, the real world and the imagined one, the uncanny and the norm. It is a film caught between 'providing an impression' and 'creating an illusion' of reality! In a way it goes with the larger theme that only in dreams and fiction do we sustain contradiction!
I like avant-garde and experimental films because they occupy the space in the cinematic medium that is unadaptable. You cannot translate experimental films into any other medium because they are not about storytelling, but about celebrating that unique metaphysical quality of the cinematic form that makes it different from any other medium! For instance this film cannot be adapted into a book, a play, or any other form, even though it has a simple narrative structure with a clear beginning, middle and end, and following a chronological time order (morning to night in an actor's life), because the scenes that the filmmaker chose the actor to perform in the film are ostensibly ambiguous and dependent on the atmospheric qualities that can be suggested only cinematically. Every medium has that quality that is so unique to it that it cannot be adapted into another form. For example: non-narrative poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, movement based abstraction in dance, expressionism in painting....
That being said, what is also remarkable about each of the scenes is that, while they are abstract in the way they were presented, they each seem like scenes that can fit in more conventional stories. There is enough detail in each scene to help us imagine the premise of the larger story that they may fit into. Or, we can think of them as self-contained short stories, since short stories are generally edgy, and oftentimes begin without an exposition, right in the middle of the action, and end abruptly.
In the end, it’s a film like none other, and your read of it will certainly be different from mine!