On August 10th at TIFF, after a screening of his newest feature Holy Motors (2012), Leos Carax appeared onstage to answer questions from the programmer and audience. This was part of a retrospective, entitled Modern Love, of the director’s five features : Boy Meets Girl (1984), Mauvais Sang (1986), The Lovers on the Bridge (Les amants du Pont-Neuf, 1991), Pola X (1999), and of course Holy Motors. I want to spare readers an account of the film and spend a few paragraphs thinking through Holy Motors using some of the questions from the audience and the responses by the director as well as an earlier interview with Eric Kohn.1
Holy Motors accomplishes much in just under two hours. According to an audience member there have been many wacky interpretations of the film, but the story and plot is not my interest here. Carax did say during the Q&A, as well as in the interview with Kohn, that the only wrong way to think about the film is that one is either too clever or too dumb to watch it. I want to focus instead on two things: the turn to digital filmmaking and issues surrounding performance and performativity.
The film does not just imaginatively (re)state the decline of celluloid in recent filmmaking, something we should all be familiar with by now and if not, please direct yourself immediately to a (digital) copy of Christopher Keannelly’s Side by Side (2012). Holy Motors is proof that films shot digitally can be worth awarding well, circulating, revisiting, and critically evaluating.
Carax claimed that digital cameras were used to make Holy Motors because of the budget and time constraints; he also tried to (re)explain a point made in the film about the size and weight of the old cameras – a Mitchell camera for his first feature – and the weightlessness of the new ones. In the film, through Denis Lavant as Monsieur Oscar, Carax mourns for the now obsolete old cameras with a flair for the poetic. Carax uses Oscar as his mouthpiece: the cameras were once heavier than us, and now, they are almost invisible. There was in Carax’s answer about cameras and technology, and the apparent necessity to reinvent cinema after only a long century of existence, a lament for the loss of traditional forms of filmmaking. Carax went as far as to suggest digital is no longer filmmaking. But why continue filming, or performing, a mysterious man played by Michel Piccoli (who starred alongside Lavant back in 1986 in Mauvais Sang) asks Oscar? The beauty of the geste/gesture/act Oscar forcefully claimed in the feature and Carax softly described during the Q&A.2 We see this already in Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography the director told the audience, noting that the inclusion of Marey’s work, which was dispersed throughout the feature, was to reclaim the beauty of performance. This gives the title a twofold meaning: both the cameras and the bodies in action are the so-called holy motors. The truth we discover from our experience of this film is that both celluloid and digital are holy motors if they can capture the movements of an individual.
The inclusion of Marey’s chronophotography does not end there. Holy Motors stages several scenes of cinematic death; we see Oscar die – from a stab wound, in a hail of gunfire, from natural causes in old age – only to resurrect and move on to his next appointment. Carax films what André Bazin feared most about the cinema, i.e., its attempts and successes in capturing death, “the unique moment par excellence.” He wrote in 1958, “I imagine the supreme cinematic perversion would be the projection of an execution backward like those comic newsreels in which the diver jumps up from the water back onto his diving board.”3 But Bazin forgot that filmmaking has always had a relationship with death, particularly in the early form of Marey’s chronophotographic gun, coinciding with the invention of automatic weapons, argues Friedrich Kittler. Kittler observed with respect to the near simultaneous invention of Marey’s gun and automatic weaponry: “In order to focus on and fix objects moving through space, such as people, there are two procedures: to shoot [bullets] and to film.”4 Celluloid is also storage then (the fixing of objects in time and space), a document and testament to the temporality and spatiality of objects or persons, chemically processed, made a mould of or mummified – this much Bazin can agree with if we read his “Ontology of the Photographic Image.”5
Digital perfects this capacity for storage. No longer do we have to suffer the decay of celluloid (which can be transformed into spectacular images, such as the “supernatural cinema” of New York filmmaker Bill Morrison.)6 Digital provides an almost indefinite life to a work which, yes, may wither the film’s aura as the original or first copy becomes a material impossibility; but as Walter Benjamin positively asserted about cinema generally, it is the democratization of the film-object through its mechanical reproduction, storage, and accessibility. This is Carax’s first positive usage of digital, offering a new means of production thus generating a new type of storage.
The second consequence I draw out of Holy Motors and its comment on digital is a rethinking of the image as something produced by the film-artist alone. He stated in the Q&A that he desperately needs a good team to help him in his work. This truth appears most clearly in the dream sequence and the night vision shot. I think Carax plays with us a bit here as well as provides a comment, showing the relative ease of altering the image with digital (there probably exists a night vision app), but more importantly with this camera effect he highlights the possibility for almost anyone to creativity engage the 7th art and produce a worthwhile image.
Holy Motors helps us think the history of cinema from Marey to Carax, technology from Mitchell cameras to RED and Canon 5D, and the future of filmmaking and cinema. It is a film which also provides four interrelated ways of thinking performance and performativity: the relationship between director and actors; the relationship amongst actors; the relationship between actors and audience(s); and performance in everyday life. On the first Carax surprised us with his answer about the relationship between him and Lavant. He simply stated that despite their years working together (since 1984 and four features), the director and actor “don’t know each other.”7 I would suggest that the character portrayed by Carax, Renard, in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (2007), who plainly and coldly said to a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) no longer desiring to don that identity, “I can’t accept you not being Michael,” Carax the director of Holy Motors additionally cannot but see actors whose gestures are to be put on and in his films. His actors are therefore radically depersonalized, turned into the automatons like the repetitive Marey chronophotographs, because Carax simply refuses to know them outside their capacity to perform.
The relationship amongst actors is depicted as well in Holy Motors. A role in a feature film extends beyond the filmic, Carax seems to say. Or rather the emotions and physicality of a role and the demands of a performance affect the integrity and bodily comportment of the actor even after the director has called “Cut!” In a scene which otherwise goes unnoticed – no one has laughed at the three theatre screenings I have attended – Lavant’s emotionally distraught father-character does not merely resume his role as Oscar upon that appointment’s conclusion. After the daughter has disappointed the father, after the father is clearly infuriated, Oscar finishes the sequence but then with the same look of sadness and rage portrayed in the appointment storms to the limo, opens the rear door, angrily glares at the limo driver Céline (Édith Scob), and quickly slams it shut. His fictional daughter and a thoroughly fictive performance have a real and identifiable affect on Oscar’s profilmic existence.8
We see the same in Élise Lhomeau’s (Léa) performance at the end of the deathbed appointment. Monsieur Vogan (whose name appears on a tombstone during the earlier Merde appointment) finally wraps up his last words then exhales his last breath. Léa, kneeling at his bedside, remains with her head on his chest as Oscar resurrects, and stays face down on the bed despite the scene’s obvious completion. Oscar attempts to vacate the hotel room where Vogan has just died, but checks on Élise before returning to the limo. Her tears continue to flow despite knowing the scene has come to an end. She hopes to work together again, but as Jean (Kylie Minogue) tells us in the next appointment, they likely never will.9 This is much like actors in the real world, developing fictional and real bonds during filming, only to quickly lose them once the premiere is over.
Carax’s statement in Mister Lonely can also refer to the audiences’ relationship to actors. Holy Motors suggests that we, as an audience, cannot accept stars as anything other than their personas. A successful role is forever engrained in the minds of spectators. Will Daniel Radcliffe ever be more than Harry Potter for example? Carax tells us with his film that with enough imaginative potential and with an actor who truly believes in his art, spectators’ relationship to actors does not have to succumb to a typecasting or inseparable prior role. Lavant dances through the film as 11 different characters, and even when we watch him as Alex in one of Carax’s other features or Charlie Chaplin in Korine’s Mister Lonely,10 in his moments of magnificence he is not, in the minds of spectators, tied to one specific role (despite playing Merde in Tokyo!  and Holy Motors). Holy Motors makes this quite apparent – we need not just see a film because of the star that happens to play a role; we may also appreciate the ability an actor has of getting into a role, and the performance of that role, without establishing some kind of aura across his entire career or necessarily needing a knowledge of the extradiegetic to enjoy the film-experience. Lindsay Lohan for example is appreciated not for her acting but for her reckless behaviour – this is what we go to see, or will perhaps go to see, in Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (2013).
When asked how he would pitch (or did pitch) Holy Motors to producers, Carax claimed he would describe it as a film about everyday life. In the interview with Kohn he similarly mentions, “[The film is] trying to have the whole range of human experience in a day.” This is to say that Oscar’s performances are not merely those of an actor in a sci-fi world where roles are taken up without the cameras, but is, like Korine’s Mister Lonely, an exhibition of the way we normally take up the day. Life is thoroughly performative; we wear different styles and masks and makeup depending on the situation, the environment, and the person performing with us. Sometimes these performances blur, intertwine, or we confuse the role we play as a father, laborer, musician, for the one we play with friends or lovers, and vice versa. Carax then has been thinking Holy Motors since delivering his lines in Korine’s film – the two directors give us the same message about the performance and its relation to ordinary everydayness.
Holy Motors is so clearly about real life, a topic he says to Kohn, he would prefer to discuss. “I mostly don’t submit to talking about my work because I would like another talk about real life. I don’t think men were meant to be interviewed.” Carax remains at a distance, remains elusive, in both real life and in his film.
Eric Kohn, “Q&A: Leos Carax Explains ‘Holy Motors’ and Why He Wants to Make a Superhero Movie,” Indiewire, October 15, 2012, http://www.indiewire.com/article/honor-roll-2012-leos-carax-explains-his-beloved-holy-motors-indiewires-top-film-of-2012, accessed August 12, 2013.
Gesture is Ginette Vincendeau’s translation of geste (“Film of the Week: Holy Motors,” Sight and Sound, September 28, 2012, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-holy-motors, accessed August 12, 2013) as well as Carax’s during the Q&A; the film translates the word as act.
André Bazin, “Death Every Afternoon,” Rites of Realism, ed. Ivone Margulies, Duke University Press, 2003, 30, 31.
Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Standford, CA: Stanford University Press,  1999, 122, 124.
In the interview with Kohn, Carax claims, “Although I don’t make films for anybody, I do make films, therefore I do make them for someone: I make them for the dead.”
Madeleine Wall, “The Nature of Decay: The Supernatural Cinema of Bill Morrison,” paper delivered at (Re)Activating Objects, Western University, March 3rd, 2013.
Cf. the Kohn interview: “Well, I’ve worked with him for almost 30 years now, although we don’t know each other in real life. We’re not friends or anything. We don’t have dinner together. We don’t really talk.”
I believe this appointment is one of the best in the film. Lavant’s abilities shine. From the Kohn interview: “…[T]here were two or three scenes where I thought [Lavant] couldn’t really play the part.
[Kohn:] Which scenes?
Probably the father-daughter scene and hotel scene with the dying man and his young niece. He became a greater actor while I wasn’t making my films. I don’t know what happened to him in real life or in his work or both that made him an actor who could play any part, but now he can.” Carax made a similar statement at the TIFF Q&A.
It was too obvious to suggest the profilmic effects performers in the scene of Eva Grace’s (Jean) suicide and Oscar’s reaction, i.e., his scream and running from the event and into the safety of the limo.
See my review of Mister Lonely at http://nocturnaluproar.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/finding-your-outer-self-harmony-korines-mister-lonely/. I link Carax’s lines in this film (he has a small part) with the conclusions I develop about performance in Holy Motors.