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Holy Motors

Ruinous Representation


At what point does a film’s intertextual meaning collapse the frontiers of the narrational and the personal, and is Holy Motors a work that more than most wants to comment on its own existence to the degree that the existence of the work itself, its diegetic, narrative meaning, becomes irrelevant next to the influences placed upon it? Now a few of these influences were pointed out in Sight and Sound, with reference to Eyes without a Face, A bout de souffle, Blood of a Poet, Orpheus and the work of Eadweard Muybridge. A letter in the following issue mentioned The Devil’s Advocate and Death by Hanging. What is interesting here though is not to think of all the films that director Leos Carax references, no matter his cinephile pedigree as a former critic for Cahiers du cinema, but more the idea of the self-reflexive as the narratively destructive and the personally revelatory.

In relation to the latter we might find ourselves in a suspect area of film criticism, and that is not only linking the film to the artist in an act of intentional fallacy, but also intruding a little on the artist’s life in saying a few words about a tragedy at the beginning of the film’s shoot. Several days into the film’s making, Carax’s partner, and the mother of the daughter we see playing a small role very early in the film (the little girl at the round window), died, and Katarina Golubeva was buried in the very cemetery that Carax uses for the scene with the character of Mr Merde. At the end of the film, during the credits, the film pays its respects to this fascinating actress with an image of her, and it feels inter-diegetic. Neither part of the story, of course, but neither quite existing entirely outside of it either. It has become commonplace for films to end with photos. Sometimes provocatively so, as we see in Dogville and Manderlay, with director Lars von Trier using respectively photos of the poor and dispossessed and blacks facing white atrocities, and sometimes historically or sentimentally – as we find at the end of three recent films: Lawless, Untouchable and 80 Million. In the three latter works, the people we’ve been watching in fictional form are shown in photos so that we can compare like with like.

In the three later instances, no matter the differing quality of the films, the use is what we’ll call indexically revelatory, taking up the philosopher C. S. Peirce’s differentiation between the index and the icon, and which has proved so useful to film theory. The index possesses an existential relationship with the world, thermometers, footprints, the photograph. The icon does not – and so while filmmakers have worked with the index, painters have worked with icons. The icon may be representationally realistic, but it is not of course an imprint from reality but a reproduction of that reality. It is the difference between a photograph and a portrait, and no matter if photos have always been capable of being touched up, one assumes an indexical reality behind these minor changes. In digital technology, however, many feel that the indexical is giving way to the icon: that filmmakers will increasingly become more like painters, or animators, than chroniclers of the real. As D. N. Rodowick says in his recent book on the ontological questions behind digital, “Of course, what remains absent from the process of digital representation is what thinkers like Andre Bazin or Roland Barthes held fundamental to the photographic image: its causal force as a literal spatial and temporal molding of the originating event, preserved in a physical material.”  (The Virtual life of Film)   Dogville et al acknowledge the debt to the real, but few filmmakers more than Carax here want to incorporate that debt and fret over its loss in all its manifestations.

This is so much so that the film dissolves as a narrative form into a mode that loses its perceptual coordinates. At one moment Denis Lavant’s central figure, Monsieur Oscar, whose obscure working day we have been following, has a discussion with Michel Piccoli’s character in the back of the limousine and they talk about how cameras have got ever smaller. Once they were bigger than the actor; now they are all but invisible. It is this very invisibility that Holy Motors plays on, as the film itself, as it moves from one episode to the next, has no clear extra-diegetic field. Generally, films have a field of activity that separates the viewed from the viewer, and one sees this for example in the notion of the fourth wall that oughtn’t to be broken, because, if it is, one finds oneself then implicated in the diegesis instead of retaining one’s place outside of the diegetic space. Clearly many filmmakers have played with this extra-diegetic field: Godard when he has Anna Karina looking directly at the camera in Vivre sa vie, von Trier when he shows us the camera reflected in a car window in The Idiots, Haneke when the footage is rewound in Funny Games. These are all instances of the extra-diegetic field being intruded upon, but Carax’s intrusion is so great that we may wonder about the extra-diegetic field at all. Where exactly is it?  As Lavant and Piccoli discuss the size of cameras today, part of this sadness also contains within it an anxiety: where exactly is the camera? When Karina looks into the celluloid camera in Vivre sa vie, or the camera is reflected in the car window in the digitally filmed The Idiots, nevertheless the field beyond the action is as clearly present as it is in most films, only on these occasions explicitly so. Most of the time it is implicitly present as the camera finds the most appropriate place in which to film the action, and the extra-diegetic field is the perceptual space demanded by us to see what is going on for the purpose of following the events.

Yet something in Holy Motors refuses this field, as if aware that if the cameras become so small as to be all but invisible, then the demarcated space between what the camera observes and what is behind the camera dissolves also. Part of the perplexity of Holy Motors is that if Lavant’s character is an actor hired to play a series of roles, then where exactly is the diegetic limit point that makes us aware that we are watching a film? If the first aspect lies in our positioning in front of the screen as the filmmaker generally locates us within a viewer space that makes us feel we are watching the diegesis, or better still the mimesis, the events enacted dramatically for us, then the second resides in our following the diegesis: in seeing the story unravel and progress. But if the former is stalled by the sense that the camera cannot demarcate space as it once could, taking into account Piccoli and Lavant’s comments, then equally the story refuses to ground us in a take that will tell us what Monsieur Oscar’s purpose happens to be. Like Jim Jarmusch’s fascinating Limits of Control, with Isaac de Bankole a mysterious figure on assignment, and the astonishing L’Intrus, by Claire Denis, where we might assume, but cannot possibly know, that Michel Subor’s character is a former hit man, here the withholding of information causes us fundamental, hermeneutic problems. But one feels for all their brilliance, Denis and Jarmusch’s films still hold to the notion of radical aporia: films where the gaps cannot be filled except by interpretive self-responsibility. Holy Motors seems not even to invite us to do this: the whole story feels not aporic, but situational: situational in the Guy Debord sense of a dissolution between art and action. As Philippe Sollers says in an article on Guy Debord in the Guardian by Andrew Hussey: “It is a commonplace now, especially in the world of fine art, to talk of artists making life their raw material…They talk of making their lives the site of art… Guy Debord was, however, not an artist and he was not interested in challenging or shifting perspectives between art and spectator. The construction of situations from which there is no turning back, which is the most concise definition of that dangerous term ‘situationist’, explains not only how Guy Debord lived as he did, but also how he saw life as a game, the rules of which were constantly being defined and redefined by hazard, circumstance or terrain.”

Of course there is a difference between a theatrical or street situation that leaves us unsure whether we are watching a ‘real’ event or a staged one, and a film where we have paid to enter the cinema. But while this is existentially so, perceptually perhaps there is not a great deal of difference, and it is this perceptual indeterminacy Carax wants to play with. To explain, let’s imagine how this perceptual problem could be eradicated, and let us imagine that like L’Intrus and The Limits of Control, Holy Motors is a very, very distant cousin to a Bond movie: both L’intrus and The Limits of Control have the assignment setting or globetrotting dimension of a Bondian outing. In Holy Motors we would have Oscar offered a series of appointments, and the reason why he would be hired for each one. Each would show his ingenuity and over the course of the film each incarnation would be moving him closer to his target or goal. Narratively we would have our purposeful character, and subsequently we would have our purposeful role following these purposeful actions. Instead we don’t know why Oscar does many of the things he does, except that he is hired to do them, an actor putting in long hours rather like a part-time worker juggling several jobs and working from early in the morning till late at night. The story isn’t so much illogical as devoid of the underpinning purpose behind the action. Where Luis Bunuel’s surrealist streak often comes from the non sequitur, in films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of the Liberty, here Carax’s come from the actions following one from the other, but the motives behind the actions remaining invisible. Where Bunuel very much makes us aware of the extra-diegetic field and then destroys the narrative logic, Carax leaves us stranded in a  situationist confusion because the story isn’t motivated, and the visual field remains unclearly delineated. When in the past a filmmaker would have a character look into the camera and break the fourth wall with ease, the easiness was because the viewer knew exactly where they were. But what happens if the fourth wall collapses because there is less and less a sense of a fourth wall? The fourth wall has always been what we’re calling the extra-diegetic field, the space beyond, and when filmmakers in the past have used it, they have remained within the notion of the three walls which has allowed them to break the fourth. But it’s as though the size of the digital cameras have become so small that the diegetic and extra-diegetic field dissolve into each other: Oscar isn’t a character in a film, but a character within a character within a character occupying a space that becomes indiscernible.

An example of this indiscernibility can be found in the scene with Mr. Oscar and Kylie Minogue’s character Eva Grace as their limousines bump into each other, and the characters discuss a shared past they have had. Yet can we say this is a shared past, or is it a past she is re-enacting with Mr Oscar, or a past of a third party who is using Mr Oscar and Eva to re-enact a reunion based on an earlier loss, and subsequently recorded for the purposes of this third party? In most films, the dissolution of the movie/reality divide has still incorporated the technology: , Le Mepris, The Stuntman and so on make us aware of the means of production even if we cannot always tell what is real and what is fictional. The camera might never lie if the camera is too obtrusive for the film to avoid its presence, but here the camera’s potential invisibility adds to the indiscernible. When at the end of the sequence between Mr Oscar and Eva, we see Eva and her partner lying dead on the street, are these dead bodies we are seeing, or is it the mock suicide of two characters playing the roles of a grieving couple who have paid for a hypothetical demise? The film creates such a space of indeterminacy that we cannot say what the relationships are, in the first instance, and secondly whether the sequence is ‘real’ or fictional.

This is equally true of other sequences, and might make us wonder what the purpose of scenes that leaves us in such a state of indeterminacy happen to be.  In the cemetery scene where Mr Merde bites off a photographic assistant’s fingers, are we to react with the dismay of the onlookers who gapes in horror, or with the wry awareness that this is a fiction within a fiction within a fiction? By comparison, when watching Michael Haneke’s Hidden, many viewers gasp exactly as the onlookers do in the cemetery in a scene when someone slits their throat, but though Haneke’s film forces upon us self-reflexive questions concerning the truth of the image as footage we take to be ‘real’ is rewound and shown to be recorded video material, one’s reaction to the violence in Hidden is unequivocal: of course it is fiction, but it demands from us an affective reality. In some of the scenes in Holy Motors, the indeterminacy of diegesis creates at the same time indeterminacy of affect. Are we naive if we share the same sense of shock as the onlookers, since we don’t know if the scene is diegetically real or diegetically staged? When Haneke utilises such moments in Funny Games, nevertheless he demands that we take the violence as diegetically real no matter if he has other moments that insist what we are watching is a fiction, and this seems equally true of a number of other filmmakers who create extreme images in film. Gaspar Noe may insist in giving the viewer a thirty second warning before showing us horrific scenes in Seul contre tous, but he also expects us to take the violence he shows seriously. Even the playful Lars von Trier shows us the scene of Bjork’s execution in Dancer in the Dark affectively straight: we are in no doubt that, diegetically, Bjork’s character is being executed, just as, at the moment when the butcher shoots his daughter in the neck in Seul contre tous we assume she is dying, and, in Hidden, that the half-brother who slits his own throat is dead.

However, the key scenes of violence in Holy Motors do not possess this diegetically affective certitude, do not leave us sure of how we should react because we are not sure whether the violence actually, diegetically, takes place. For example when Mr Oscar shoots a banker on a cafe terrace, he is shooting a variation of himself, Denis Lavant’s character this time dressed as a banker, shot by Denis Lavant as Mr Oscar. While those who witness the scene exclaim their dismay, where are we supposed to stand when we do not at all know in what register the scene is happening? Are the people hired to react as they do, and of course we can reply that yes of course they have been, since Carax has staged the scene and filmed it. But we can say the same of many an action sequence in The Wild Bunch, Heat, The French Connection and others where a crowd looks on as violence ensues. The question stops, though, with our safe assumption that while the scene is obviously enacted, the diegesis isn’t questioned through that enactment. In the scenes of violence in Holy Motors, that enactment is constantly being called into question, so that while the violence is vividly presented, it isn’t necessarily diegetically actualised.

Our constant use of the term diegesis might seem a piece of jargon for the times, but it is a word that can be traced back to the birth of criticism: to Aristotle’s work on tragedy. It is not a new word at all – it is a very old one. But it’s a word that can help us find our way about a film like Holy Motors, and understand something of its newness. More than most films, Carax’s puts its story in inverted commas, and of course the danger here is that we have yet another variation of what Fredric Jameson calls, in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the “waning of affect”, a position in much post-modern art that refuses the aesthetics of feeling and often for the self-consciousness of form. But it’s as if Carax isn’t interested in the self-consciousness of form; more its collapse. If for example a director like Godard, Haneke and even Tarantino call attention to the process of watching a film, then they do so through respecting the audience/film dichotomy just as a mainstream piece will do also. The difference is that where the narratively driven film will work with invisible editing, camerawork and acting,  Godard, say, will call all three into question, and expect the viewer to call into question the film-going experience. Carax’s film isn’t self-reflexive, however, but dissolutional, with some viewers perhaps reacting with dismay at the violence, but others reacting with dismay at the indeterminacy of the situation within the diegesis. In the scene where Mr Oscar goes and murders a gangster (played also by Denis Lavant), after he seems to have killed the other man he shaves the man’s head and changes his clothes so that he looks identical to Oscar. However, the man isn’t dead, and stabs Mr Oscar in exactly the same place as Mr Oscar has stabbed him, with Carax then cutting from the two of them dying to one of them staggering out of the building. But which one, we cannot easily say. The whole situation offers radical indiscernibility: we don’t really know who Mr Oscar is, don’t know why he is expected to kill the gangster, don’t know whether the killing is real within the story, and then don’t really know whether it is Mr Oscar or the gangster who survives the assassination attempt.

Dorothea Olkowski has talked in Gilles Deleuze of ‘The Ruin of Representation’ (the book’s sub-title), and wonders whether such ruinousness need necessarily destroy affect. Drawing a complex weave around Hume, Freud, Bergson and Deleuze, she notes that “to fall into the traps laid by habits is to find ourselves in the endless repetition in which each new situation foregoes its novelty and is merely repeated on the model of a previous habit. This is what psychoanalysis seems to believe is good health, or at least its basic conforming to habitual modes of activity and thought, even on the affective level.” What Olkowski says of psychoanalysis and health one might say of those who believe in art and good craft. Representation is bolstered rather than ruined, and creativity comes out of mastering norms and deviating from them for the purposes of novelty and modest newness.

But such feelings that come out of these norms are perhaps not quite worthy of the term, and might best be described as garden-variety emotion. When a character gets revenge on a man who has murdered his wife, the situation might be extreme, from the character’s point of view, but emotionally predictable from the viewer’s. How often do we find in mainstream films extremity of situation contained by the predictability of affect? It is obviously traumatic for the character to lose his best friend who’s been gunned down, but it gives the film an opportunity to work a garden-variety response in us of righteous anger as he demands vengeance. The therapy hours are not our concern; the feeling of a man doing the right thing is. Out of such an approach we are in the world of affective habit more than troubled feeling.

Many contemporary narrative filmmakers who are nevertheless also formally and affectively experimental don’t want to ruin representation, but they want to take its given properties and open up its implications, either by calling the situation addressed into question ethically, formally or psychologically, or through a combination. Sometimes the representational image will lose its motivational pull as we find in some of the best American films of the last fifteen years: films like The Brown Bunny, Gerry and Meek’s Cutoff allow scenes where nothing seems to be happening to gain a retrospective significance. In Gerry, for example, a walk in a national park that should, so to speak, be a walk in the park, becomes a nightmarish no exit where we realize at a certain point the characters are completely lost. All the dead time the film has been accumulating turns into death time as it looks like the characters will not find their way out of this massive national park alive. On other occasions it will be formally troublesome, with characters losing their properties and becoming someone else in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., or the story will seem arbitrarily to start all over again as we wonder what links the first and second halves, as in Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. Sometimes it will be self-reflexively troublesome, evident in the inserted sequences to seventies rock songs in Breaking the Waves, in the use of Wagner at the beginning of Melancholia,  the rewound footage that we take to be real in Funny Games and Hidden. In each instance representation isn’t ruined, but it is questioned, and so the habitual affects so often utilised by much conventional cinema, aren’t taken for granted, but nevertheless the representation still holds. Whether we are questioning the notion of character (as in Lost Highway or Mullholland Dr.), wondering whether we are still watching the same story as narrative form becomes apparently and arbitrarily taken off its hinges (as in Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century), or asking ethical questions through the inquiry into form in Funny Games and Hidden, representation isn’t eschewed, but the image’s affects aren’t taken for granted either.

If Holy Motors is important it lies in this interest in affective difficulties in the face of representational acceptance. One doesn’t doubt that Mr Oscar as Mr Merde representationally bites off a photographic assistant’s fingers, shoots someone at a cafe, and ends the film at home with some apes. What is ruined is representation’s assumptions, and from this point of view Holy Motors is a consistent assault as it creates affective dissonance instead of affective assertiveness.  In the affectively assertive we have such feelings as righteousness, sadness, despair, hope, glee, joy. In affective dissonance, however, such feelings are no longer so assured. Our sadness towards Eva and her partner’s death is tempered by our uncertainty towards the nature of the event: is it ‘real’ or not? This is equally so in relation to our feelings of shock towards the shot banker. The feeling cannot settle into the certitude of its assumption, and yet equally that doesn’t mean the affect wanes, in Jameson’s sense of the term.

If much cinema demands a waxing and waning, a combination of real feeling and mock feeling, then Holy Motors wants the waxing and waning to be indeterminate rather than determinate. What do we mean by this? Think how often in a romantic comedy the film works between the maudlin and the funny, between expecting us to feel sad about a character’s predicament, and finding that predicament hilarious. The beginning of Bridget Jones’ Diary asks us to feel sorry for Bridget as she is alone at home, but be amused as she listens to ‘All by Myself’. The feeling extracted might be one of both sadness and amusement, but it isn’t at all a dissonant feeling as it waxes sentimentality and wanes it with humour. We take the feeling of sadness seriously, but the humour undercuts the sad with the funny. Often a certain mode of post-modern cinema does exactly this and arrives at the deliberately facetious, where an event that ought to be given gravity, is lightened by the humorously aloof, evident in Leone and Tarantino films perhaps.

These are very different approaches to the waning of affect, but if they give viewers little trouble, it rests in underlying confidence that what one feels is what one gets: the feeling might be ambivalent but it isn’t ambiguous: in other words the film plays with us but doesn’t trouble us. Carax’s images do, and this is why one needs to be suspicious of anyone seeing the film as simply a self-reflexive ode to cinema (as surely Tarantino’s films happen to be). Is it not instead a meditation on cinema’s capacity – through the development of new technologies – to lose its formal status as film? It is one thing for the image to find ways to call into question the ease of representation and feeling; it is another if the image loses its confidence. The discussion between Piccoli and Lavant reflects this, as if cinema as a boundary medium, as an art form with a frame, if you like, is losing that framing function.

Many a film accepts this as a new freedom: films as antithetical as Russian Ark and Five Broken Cameras don’t so much accept as embrace the new technology. Russian Ark does so assertively as it takes advantage of a freedom film never had: the opportunity to make a film in one breath, a ninety plus minute take through Russian history as it moves from room to room in a St Petersburg museum, with each room another moment in Russia’s dramatic unfolding. Five Broken Cameras utilises digital technology to tell its side of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict: a Palestinian films the oppression he feels in the face of Israeli force. Not only does he use the digital camera to capture images, with the camera performatively functioning as witness, the film pushes the camera’s anthropomorphic function still further: it is a witness murdered. The title alludes to the cameras that get destroyed as they film the events. In each case, though, whether it happens to be Alexander Sokurov’s aristocratic approach, or Emad Burnat’s crippled witness (not only the cameras are shot at; Burnat gets injured too), there is a sense of the technology as a liberating force aesthetically or socially.

Carax’s work seems less positive, and yet he couches this wariness not in a criticism of the new image, but in working out its epistemological dangers. Though the reviews for the film have been extremely positive, they’ve been couched in a manner that hasn’t taken the problem the film addresses as much of a problem at all.  “Holy Motors, fueled by pure feeling, is a dream of a movie you want to get lost in.” (Rolling Stone)  “It’s the coolest and strangest movie of the year, and once it gets its druglike hooks in your brain, you’ll never get them out again.” (Salon) “I don’t know what Lavant is playing here because I’ve never seen anything like it.” (Boston Globe) The question worth asking, though, is why we’ve never seen anything quite like it before, and part of the answer resides, we feel, in the diegetic boundaries that can get lost in digital cinema where the cameras are so small that the film all but disappears as a diegesis. Indeed in a short piece in Lola magazine, Adrian Martin hints at this, saying, “The fictional premise is beautifully minimal and elusive. We gather that Mr Oscar is performing, always performing. We listen to a discussion about small digital cameras, and thus deduce that there is filming, and some sort of edited projection or live broadcasting going on (the EDtv [1999] or The Truman Show [1998] idea) – a Reality Show extravaganza of some kind.”

Interestingly, in an interview with Frieze magazine, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy said, when asked whether the digitalization of our lives would make redundant the physical, “no, how could the physical be made redundant by electronics? These are fantasies!” However, is there something to be wary of in terms of a film image that asks us to experience the filmic story very differently? If central to Andre Bazin’s notion of the authenticity of the image resided in the twofold idea of the pro-filmic event, the idea of the reality in front of our eyes existing as the real, and the instrument that records that reality and the same time demarcates it, the digital can dissolve this ‘faith’ by asking us to wonder whether the image is real at all: since the digital process doesn’t so much record reality as reconfigure it, and the cameras become so small that even a mobile phone can now pass for an instrument of filmmaking. It is as though Carax’s film accepts that of course as Nancy says the physical is not being made redundant by electronics, but that doesn’t mean our epistemological landscape isn’t being troublingly altered. As another philosopher of Nancy’s generation, Paul Virilio, says: “‘Faster, smaller, cheaper’ – this NASA slogan could shortly become the watchword of globalization itself. But with one nuance, since the speed and smallness in question would no longer refer to devices designed to conquer extra-terrestrial space, but to our geography at the moment of its sudden temporal compression”. (The Information Bomb) Now films can be made in a day with hardly anyone noticing, and released on the internet the following morning if the maker so wishes: an unequivocal example of speed and smallness, and an example that sees in digital technology revolutionary potential: evident in the footage coming out of the ‘Arab Spring’. As David Batty says in The Guardian: “In 2011, cameraphones entered the mainstream of photojournalism due to a combination of the Arab uprisings, the Occupy protests and improved technology.” Such an approach assumes the camera never lies; Carax wonders whether its potential for problematizing the truth is its flipside function, and Holy Motors, straddling the digital image that it utilizes as it homages the celluloid image that it mourns, is a properly aesthetic response to the issue of new technologies. One say properly aesthetic because the new image is neither taken for granted nor rejected, but raised as a formal problem.  What would cinema be like, Carax seems to muse, if the extra-diegetic field that most films have taken for granted were to disappear? If truth seems to be gaining ground taking into account Batty’s article, is fiction steadily in danger of losing its own? If the documentative image bases itself on the reality of the world, is fiction’s purpose not to create hypothetical ones?

Holy Motors works with the fictional within the possibility of its dissolution in the face of cameras so small they no longer demarcate film space, and says that the camera neither lies nor tells the truth but can make filmic worlds radically indeterminate. All the while it holds to an idea of film that doesn’t at all ignore its past as the film comes together in a haunting rather than narratively-oriented way at the very end. Here we have an image of Katarina Golubeva as a young woman, an image that is certainly film and not digital, and a woman who was not only Carax’s partner and the mother of their daughter, but also part of celluloid cinema’s great heritage in films like A Few of Us, I Can’t Sleep, Pola X and 29 Palms. It is a fitting end to a film that brings together the death of cinema (an endlessly rehearsed argument but here given weight by the new cameras’ lightness), and the death of a loved one. The holy motors might obviously be the limousines that we see talking to each other at the film’s conclusion, but it is cinema as well: a holy motor that might become something else altogether as it loses its ‘motor’ function.


©Tony McKibbin