Videovista have my review of Leos Carax’s beautifully weird Holy Motors.
Holy Motors is a film that took me almost completely by surprise. Going into it, I had seen the widely-circulated ‘Trois! Douze! Merde!’ video in which an intense bald man wanders round a church with an orchestra of accordion players but beyond that I had heard nothing other than the fact that this was a festival of pretty but ultimately insubstantial whimsy. I could not have been more wrong. Holy Motors is a film about the contemporary self and our tendency to not only play different roles at different points in our lives but also our willingness to effectively ‘pull up the ladder’ behind these roles and reinvent ourselves periodically whenever we hit upon a persona we find particularly useful or enjoyable:
20th century counter-culture was obsessed with the idea that, instead of allowing people to ‘be themselves’, society bullied people into conforming to a narrow set of social expectations. However, after 50 years of relentless subversion and deconstruction, the mainstream of our culture is now almost impossible to pin down. Cultures are first and foremost collections of signs and symbols that bind and inform the people who partake of them, identities have meaning and status because people partaking of a particular culture recognise and respond to a particular set of signs, but our culture has replaced a single set of cultural signifiers with a collage of more-or-less overlapping cultures that many people struggle to navigate. What is the backlash against political correctness and multiculturalism if not a demand that old cultural privileges be reinstated? As our cultural spaces become more diffuse and intractable, we begin to yearn for that which horrified the 20th century existentialists.
For Jean-Paul Sartre, to be defined by others was to be confined to hell. His 1944 play No Exit was a howl of protest and repugnance at the idea that our identities might somehow rely upon the judgement of others. However, fast-forward 70 years and we demand the attention and judgement of others! We photograph our lunches and live-tweet our social interactions because we know that our identities exist only as long as they are recognised by the people who matter to us. Holy Motors is not about the tyranny of others but the fear of their absence… if nobody is observing Oscar then why does he play the dying uncle, the punk rock accordion player or the husband to a chimpanzee? Why do anything if nobody is paying attention? And if nobody is out there defining us then how do we even begin to define ourselves?
What makes Holy Motors a brilliant film is that Carax not only engages with these ideas, he does so using a cinematic language that is entirely new and entirely of the moment. This is cinema built with Youtube in mind. Cinema that uses spectacle not as a blunt instrument but as a scalpel that cuts away the conventions of traditional storytelling till nothing but the raw pulsating nerve of The Moment is left. Quite possibly the best and most under-appreciated film of 2012.