In Leos Carax’s befuddling, beautiful all-the-world’s-a-stage revue Holy Motors, the incomparable Denis Lavant plays a very peculiar sort of everyman. Monsieur Oscar is seemingly an actor who’s been kicked upstairs — he doesn’t work in the confines of a stage or a set (with one weird exception), but takes appointments out in the real* world, interacting with others who may or may not also be actors. (In one episode of Sellars-ian multiple casting, he has a fatal encounter with an individual who may or may not also be him.)
Motors certainly doesn’t hide its basic philosophical investigation, but it goes well beyond a metafictional exploration of performance, constantly fascinated with technology and setting and modes of perception or observation. I’ve been mulling over Holy Motors for three weeks, trying to parse it or at least find a good angle for attack. Without the benefit of repeat viewings, I can’t help but feel I’m only scratching the surface. So I’m going to come at it from every direction — below is a series of brief considerations on different aspects of the film, I think a fitting approach to an episodic and many-splendored work of art.
Rather promptly if somewhat obliquely, we are introduced to Oscar’s profession — he rides around in a limousine converted into a dressing room. There’s a mirror framed with bright bulbs, and everything he needs to transform himself bodily for each successive appointment. He can become an old lady, a spry acrobatic performer, a crass imp, a scarred thug, all with the application of some makeup. At first, it seems he’s interacting with non-actors — “real people” — but the lines are blurry from the start.
One of Oscar’s assignments calls for him to dress up as a motion capture performer and participate in a movie shoot. The actress who he encounters on the set: is she a performer like him, or just a “regular” actress? As we later learn, many of Oscar’s engagements seem to be with other performers, so it’s hard to say.