Leos Carax, Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors is a French film directed by Leos Carax; it competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. In its quaint particularity it approaches themes like sex, modern life, libertinism and aesthetics, completely justifying the aforementioned honour. It opens wih a shot of people in the theater watching a film, suggesting that film-watching experience is a dreamlike state. The film follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar who is, as we can tell, a businessman who performs various tasks during the night (aiming to escape his stressful life lacking meaning). 

The tasks are ordered by a woman named Céline (possibly an allusion to the great French novelist). He murders, pretends to be a beggar or a derranged person, an old man on his deathbed – all of these role plays symbolizing the place of  man in contemporary society. He exchanges personalities as easily as articles of clothing, rises from the dead and breaks down in cries. Holy Motors combines music (a very powerful scene with an accordion – “trois, deux, merde!”) with hypnotic shots of driving down distorted streets.

When Richard Wagner was composing and writing the libretto for Tristan und Isolde, he was deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and his vision of the world as Will (irrational, mindless, aimless), beneath the world as we perceive it (representation). Tristan and Isolde, during the second act, are together during the night (world as Will) and must be apart during the day because Isolde is promised to King Marke (world as representation). 

The same can be applied to Holy Motors. During the night, Oscar lives as he truly is, he follows his primordial instincts, and during the day he is a successful businessman. It is true that the graveyard scene and the one with a model happen during the day, but we must keep in mind that Oscar is masked. It is an another argument that can be interpreted by means of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics which implies that the world is our representation.

One may be inclined to use the term “surreal” to describe it, and one may not be wrong. Nevertheless, the film’s main point is not in its surreality, but in the distortion and chaotic misrepresentation of reality aiming to transform our perception of  it; at least during its running time. It is a powerful satire that is sometimes sentimental but does not reach the “point of no return”. The scene with Kylie Minogue in its sincerity and restrained sensitivity is one of the most captivating moments in the film. One of its many virtues is that it does not take itself seriously; its main aim is to provoke reflection.

The most interesting (and possibly shocking) scene in the film is the one with a model (Eva Mendes) which is abducted by monsieur Oscar. The shots with him putting a veil on her and him lying naked are particularly interesting to analyze; Michel Houellebecques’ novels Submission and The Elementary Particles deal with such issues.  Holy Motors presents the modern man stripped down to his instinctual desires; he is aching for liberation. It is as if Carax proclaims “the death of man” as Michel Foucault does.

Vigorous line:

“Beauty? They say it is in the eye of the beholder”

Michel Piccoli’s character

“And if there’s no more beholder?”

 Monsieur Oscar

Eye of the Beholder

This line presents the traditional notion of perspectivism, as supported by Nietzsche and lately by postmodernist authors, but expands its scope. It is no longer self-evident that we will find beauty in a piece of art or an object of possible aesthetic worth simply by enjoying it and contemplating it. According to Mr. Oscar, that is no longer simply a truism. When he questions the existence of “the beholder”, he questions the capability of man to perceive beauty according to his aesthetic inner eye (if it exists).

 Modern man has gone a long way in the advancement of technology, but as it is pointed out earlier in the conversation, technology may very well be the destruction of beauty (Martin Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology particularly adresses the question of dangers that technology brings).

Oscar says: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads.” With the advent of the internet it is possible to view artistic works of Botticelli and Raphael (to take an example) for free. It makes a great difference if one views paintings online or goes to a “pilgrimage” to Toledo to see the El Greco Museum. If something is free, its value in the eye of the beholder downgrades. This simple truism reminds of Oscar’s nostalgia that points to the fact that as soon as technology reaches a certain point of development it radically changes the very way we perceive reality.

In line with Mr. Oscar’s arguments, it can be concluded that the beholder is annihilated. Nowadays, art is consumed, eaten (as Refn’s The Neon Demon suggests); the beholder’s inner eye for beauty is distorted. The other notion that Oscar’s line adresses is the transformation and disfiguration of an eye that does not perceive the world aesthetically, but through pragmatic lenses. Remember that earlier in the film the photographer maniacally cries “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!”. When beauty becomes an obsession in a crude manner, it ceases to be beauty and is a distortion of  mind that sees only an object before him, not a piece of art with its soul, rhythm and vigour. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon can the world be justified.”; his interpreter Raymond Geuss asserts that the world justifies itself if it offers an aesthetically pleasing spectacle to an appropriately sophisticated observer. In other words, when these notions are juxtaposed to the words of Mr. Oscar, an appropriately sophisticated observer [the beholder] may cease to exist.

Hrvoje Galić