“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”; these were the words that sprang to mind as I watched Leo Carax’s Holy Motors on Friday afternoon. After a veritable silence of thirteen years, Holy Motors is a two-hour excursion into the utterly bizarre. After drumming up considerable conversation at Cannes, the film has been subject to a variety of readings, with only one common concession: it’s decidedly odd.
The premise of Holy Motors is not overly complicated in itself, covering a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he is ferried between a series of “appointments” in Paris by his chauffeur, Céline (Edith Scob). In the back of his limousine, Oscar transforms himself into a succession of vaudevillian alter-egos ranging from an aged and hunch-backed beggar woman, to the charmingly named and goblin-like Monsieur Merde, to Kylie Minogue’s lover. It is the diversity of these roles, and Lavant’s performance in them, that carries the film rather than the stories in which these characters are involved. Credited with no less than eleven individual roles, Lavant slides effortlessly between each. Whilst the stories of these characters are interesting enough in themselves, Holy Motors seems more concerned with performance and character than plot.
With each character having its own episode, Oscar’s story acts as something of a framing narrative to bind these episodes together. He first appears as an ageing business man, complete with sharp suit and body guards, and his dialogue with Céline is accordingly business-like; they talk about appointments, files, and the mysterious “Agency”, but it is the nature of Oscar’s work that stands out. What kind of agency is this where appointments consist not of business meetings but of outfitting oneself as someone else for an hour, to no obvious purpose? And so, although the film’s episodic structure is not particularly difficult to follow, we very quickly begin to wonder, what does it all mean?
I was at something of a loss for an answer to this question, until a scene midway through the film in which Oscar, once again changing costume in the limo, is confronted by a man who appears to be his superior in the “Agency”. “Do you still enjoy your work?” the man asks, “some of us think you look tired”. Oscar indicates that he performs for the sake of the act, but laments the changing conditions: “the cameras used to weigh more than us, then they were smaller than our heads; now we can’t see them at all.” “All the world’s a stage,” indeed, and so it occurred that perhaps Holy Motors is a film about the changes in filmmaking technology and our attitude toward cinema; the film pays close attention to Oscar’s meticulous application of his make-up and costume, but also contains a sequence in which he plays the role of a motion capture actor. Or maybe, with Oscar’s changing faces and their corresponding roles, Holy Motors is more of a comment on the multiple roles that we ourselves have to play in life, changing ourselves to suit our situation. “Who were we,” croons Kylie, “when we were, who we were back then?” Who is Oscar? Which identity, if any, is his own? Carax offers no obvious answers, and audiences are sure to be divided. In equal turns entrancing and bewildering, Holy Motors is certainly a thought-provoking and worthwhile experience.