“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.”
Why do cars, auto-mobiles, sullen lonely forms of transport, lend themselves so readily to the monstrous? Godard staged the world’s wildest traffic-jam in Weekend, replete with flesh-eating and wanton debaucheries of all stripes. He knew, of course, that cars are the ultimate symbol of excess; capitalism on a knife’s edge. We are sodden with the things. A line of them, discarded and silent, while civilians calmly maim and butcher, is a lovely thought.
And here, too, we have murders, madness, and strange forms of resurrection. An unknown and unknowable man, Monsieur Oscar, driven from dawn until dusk, takes on a series of roles, playing them out as circumstances dictate, becoming, in turn, beggar, assassin, father, monster, husband. Like that other bastion of surrealism, Bunuel’s dinner-parties, the roles are aimless and the spectre of lunacy overwhelms. The white limousine purrs through Parisian streets, and we feel initially that the capital of the world is not the place for surrealistic excess. But we are wrong. Night falls, and Paris takes on an otherworldly glow of pre-embolism, the feeling that death, the spectre of it, waits around every corner.
What Holy Motors is, it owes to the cinema. This is a fullness of references, a dedication, and it is to French film, in particular. It begins through a keyhole, with spiritual entrance into a dark movie theatre, where, no doubt, Franju plays on infinite repeat. Here we have Grand Guignol, wrapped in plastic. And David Lynch: there is a scene in Inland Empire where a murder, a brutal fucking murder, is revealed to be mere burlesque, a tapering crane shot for a movie that will never be made, and the victim a star. Holy Motors recreates this in great flourishes, with endless variations of death and rebirth.
We see death, in all its paucity of design: mindless killings and the tragedy of old age are one and the same. But it is the other death we feel, the death that can be subsumed and transcended. The cameras are absent, but the play-acting goes on. How can we be gone, truly dead, if the show(s) continue without meanings, or entirely castrated? So, Kylie Minogue, in the guise of Jean Seberg, throws herself from a building, brains exploding in the Paris night. But she is reborn as a chimp, and taken upstairs to bed. A daughter bids farewell to her dying father, who is suddenly returned to her, but bids farewell in his turn for another appointment. There is the insinuation that these rituals continue every night, that the sacraments of love and death goe on, a Kekuléan knot.
Holy Motors goes too far, all the time. To watch it is to grasp at the idea that it is inattentive of itself. The film bursts into musical interludes, Demy’s ghost hovering, an ever-widening acknowledgement of its basic inauthenticity. Limousines talk to each other in hackneyed rhythms. And there is Franju again at the finale, with the donning of a familiar mask, an acceptance of the film as a kind of stratified tract, a palimpsest, prevailing regardless of the fluctuating vagaries of audience. Yet can a Phoenix still rise from the flames, with nobody there to witness it?
“What makes you carry on?” asks an elderly man of Oscar.
“What made me start?” he replies. “The beauty of the act.”
“Beauty? They say it’s in the eyes, the eyes of the beholder…”
“And if there’s no more beholder?”