Film Studies Honours students curate series 'Forking Paths'

17 September 2013

Holy Motors
As part of a new series curated by Honours students in Film Studies, student Paloma Pizarro reviews the film 'Holy Motors' (Leos Carax, 2012).

A group of Honours students in Film Studies have curated a film series, Forking Paths, which runs from late August to late September and is designed to encourage reflection on the way we watch movies. Current student Paloma Pizarro reviews the film Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012). The next film screening is of Vivre Sa Vie by Jean-Luc Godard, on Wednesday 18 September.

In a programme designed to challenge what we consider cinematic storytelling to be, to make us reflect on the way we watch movies and the way movies are made, about active rather than passive viewing experiences, Leos Carax's Holy Motors seemed like an obvious choice.

Not only does it do all this, but goes further by blurring the line between life and film, causing us reflect on the way we live life. In some of the few words the director has leaked about this film, Carax hints towards what it all means: "I guess all generations feel like mutants, but I think this time in cinema - and not only in cinema - you really feel it completely."

Holy Motors is not a story in any traditional sense, although it has a protagonist, Monsieur Oscar played by Carax favourite, Denis Lavant. We follow Monsieur Oscar as he traverses Paris during the course of a day in the back of a white stretch limo, chauffeured by Celine (Edith Scob). The limo, which also doubles as an actor's dressing room, takes Monsieur Oscar to and from his various 'jobs' or 'performances' for the day - the nature of which are not made at all clear. But it is Lavant's body - with incredible range and capacity - that is the real vehicle that navigates us through this strange and wonderful film.

We see his body undergo extremities of physical exhaustion and ecstasy, transform from decrepit old age to youthful vigour and back again. Indeed, his body doubles, dies, mutates and resurrects according to what is required of him for each particular job. Monsieur Oscar's employer (Michel Piccoli) asks why he carries on, to which he replies: "For the beauty of the act."

Halfway through the film, we are offered an interval - a hark back to the days when cinema was a variety show of multiple genres and unconnected fragments of entertainment. Holy Motors is certainly this: eclectic entertainment. The interval's own internal absurd logic (3, 12, Merde!) of rhythm, music, community, and joy, signals a way to experience the film - to stop trying to make sense of it and submit to its absurd logic and rhythm.

Holy Motors can be interpreted any number of ways - it is open to that. But from the opening clip of Etienne Jules Marey's pre-cinematic experiments with movement, and the first scene where Carax himself leads us through a secret door into a movie theatre, to the incredible motion capture sequence, and the variety of cinematic references interspersed throughout - this is undoubtedly cinema about cinema.

When Monsieur Oscar complains about the gradual diminishing size of video cameras, to the point where he can now no longer see them at all, he alludes to the nostalgia for celluloid in the age of digital technology - particularly pertinent since Holy Motors could not have been made had Carax not reluctantly conceded to using cheaper, digital cameras (which he considers more like "computers" than cameras). In response to this complaint, his employer says: "Thugs don't need to see the security cameras to believe in them." This is a pivotal scene, and an astute contribution to the debates about what digital technologies mean for cinema as we once knew it. This scene suggests that although digital imaging technology has made the need for cameras unnecessary, cinema will continue to film life, and life will continue to be cinema.

Holy Motors is a film about many things: Paris, Carax, Lavant, acting, the transformations of cinema, virtual reality, the internet and the role of technology in contemporary life - but ultimately, it is a film about the multiplicities of life, about the roles we perform everyday, and until we die. And we don't need to see the cameras to believe in the beauty of the act.

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