Leos Carax: Holy Motors (English version)


Un sentito ringraziamento a Michelangelo Fiorella che ha tradotto in inglese la nostra analisi di Holy Motors (parte 1 e parte 2).



A film such as Holy Motors requires an exhaustive study, which is something that a basic review cannot accomplish. An in-depth analysis is needed in order to scrutinize the picture of the French movie director. The film is structured as if it were an agenda. As such, it can be well organized, but some unexpected commitments might always happen. Between one character and another, Mensieur Oscar takes some breaks, just five minutes that allow him to get from the previous encounter to the next one. Such minutes are spent inside “the limousine”, which literally is a theatrical green-room.


Synopsis. Some moviegoers are watching a film in a movie theater. Later a man is shown while waking up due to some noises. As he looks for where such noises come from (seagulls and waves), he bumps into his room wall, there there is a keyhole in which he inserts his key-shaped finger. After some effort, “the Dreamer” man opens the door and finds himself in the movie theater.

Analysis. Nowadays moviegoers/spectators are passive. They only go to cinema to spend some time with their friends, looking for a simple form of entertainment. Moviegoers are more passive than active. The film director reawakens from his own anonymity, from the passiveness of his work. He is both intrigued and annoyed by the noise he hears, and then he is capable of breaking the dull wall he himself constructed. By breaking his prison-like wall, he can become an active witness of the cinematographic art, as well as of the audience condition. As the film-maker (Leos Carax) enters the cinema, he decides to get back to filmmaking, reawakening from his creative lethargy.

Start of the working day

Synopsis. Monsieur Oscar is a business man working at the Paris stock exchange. During his travel in a limousine, he schedules by phone a meeting with another business man at the famous Parisian restaurant Forquet’s. His driver, Céline, who drives the white limousine, updates Oscar on the encounters he must have throughout the day: nine.

Analysis. The business man is none other than one of many Oscar’s characters. In all likelihood it’s the last character that Oscar portrayed during the previous working day. In this sequence it’s essential to point out the appearance of the limousine which functions as a “behind the scenes” of the whole pantomime. The car is filled with masks, make-up products and garments. It’s likely that the automobile is nothing more than a moving changing room, closed off from the setting: Paris. In this sense it’s possible to develop an interesting argument about the relationship between reality and fiction: the only real place, the only reality seems to be the limousine, whereas Paris is nothing more that the setting of an immense pantomime where Oscar’s characters can act as they please. Moreover, it’s possible to point out an analogy with Croneberg’s Cosmopolis: just like Eric Paker, Oscar is a business man who travels only by limousine.

First character: The Beggar

Synopsis. After consulting the folder containing information for his first appointment, Monsieur Oscar starts to get dressed. He wears a wig with long hair, a rod, and he gets off the limousine limping. He begs on the bridge Alexandre III as he acts a soliloquy whose topic is oldness.

Analysis. The role of this first character is really difficult to explain, even though it can be read as a continuation of what happens during the prologue. Oscar might embody the awareness of “the old and weak person”, he might embody the difficulty of the old cinema when it comes to facing modernity: it’s no surprise that none of the people passing by give some money to the old beggar. Nowadays, no one takes into account yesterday’s cinematic art.

Second character: Motion capture

Synopsis. After being a beggar, Oscar gets on the car and his driver Céline drives him to a building on the outskirts of the city. During this travel Oscar gets ready for his second character. He wears a black motion capture suit and takes a cylinder-shaped barrel containing some tools. After entering in one room, he starts his performance, showing off his athletic skills. Oscar is in a motion capture room where he performs physical activities which are related to the art of sparring, under the supervision of a recorded voice. After this physical effort, a woman wearing a motion capture suit walks in the room. She will engage with Oscar in a very sensual contortion-dance which looks on the screen like an intercourse between monsters.

Analysis. It’s not possible not to read in this sequence a harsh disapproval of contemporary cinema and of its constant search in the deepness of the IT world. Carax exhibits the monster that arises from the willingness to “trans-form” the actor’s body to make something else, forgetting that the actor’s body has wonders which are yet to be discovered. This is not a pointless disapproval of modern cinematic art. Carax accepts new technologies, but he doesn’t see anything worthy in their final result (monsters are produced on screen), on the contrary, he appreciates the body movements and he thinks they’re suitable even for motion capture scenes. Carax and Denis Lavant are interested in the doing of the actors, and not only in what the moviegoer can see on screen.

Third character: Mr. Merde

Synopsis. The third character is Mr. Merde. He’s barefoot, he’s got a white eye, long nails, red hair, green suit. Monsieur Oscar/Mr. Merde wanders in the Parisian underground, between sewers and dead-end streets. After meeting a group of homeless people, he awkwardly limps toward a cemetery. Here he bumps into a photo shoot where he is asked to portray “the beast” beside “beauty”, which is portrayed by the model Kay M.(Eva Mendes). Mr. Merde bites two photo assistant’s fingers off with no hesitation, and kidnaps the beautiful model. She is brought in Mr. Merde’s hiding place, he then cuts the dress the model is wearing in order to turn it into a veil which can cover her shoulders and face. At this stage Merde undresses and falls asleep (with a full erection) with his head on Kay M’s knees, who is now singing the American Lullaby “All the Pretty little horses”.

Analysis. After showing Merde in the namesake episode included in Tokyo!, Carax proposes him again in Holy Motors. In this case the monster is no longer a portrayal “out”of the actor’s body, but it’s on Mr. Oscar’s body itself. Merde the monster wanders in the sewers, he examines an unknown and clandestine Paris, which can be a film set just as the one one the surface. He then shows up in a cemetery (Pére Lachiase) in broad daylight, where he plunders flowers and walks on graves having as epitaph “Visit my website”. The demise of cinema is tied to contemporaneity and the world wide web. It’s more important to show up on the internet than to be an author. Authors/film directors are no longer people, but web sites and the virtual world. Merde is still tied to a corporal cinema, he blasphemously stomps on the anonymous dead of contemporaneity, they are overpowered by their own productions: new movies are not remembered because of the film director’s work, but they are appreciated by society for the money they make. After blowing away this new kind of cinema (by symbolically eating the flowers grave), Merde reaches the photo shoot. Here he is asked to act “as if he were” the Beast, in order to take a sort of “Beauty and the Beast” picture. Merde must not act like a beast though, for he’s already a beast. The actor is the character, and the character is the actor, that’s why Monsieur Oscar rejects the role they want him to portray by biting the photo assistant’s fingers off. The connection between the beautiful woman and the beast is naturally recreated, so to speak, when Merde brings the woman in his dugout after kidnapping her.

Fourth character: The family man

Synopsis. Driven toward another place, Monsieur Oscar gets on a red economy car and becomes a family man who has to pick up his daughter from her first party. The family man asks his daughter if she had a good time, if she danced and so forth. The girl answers yes, but soon her father understands that his daughter is lying, she is unable to have social relationships and she locked herself in the bathroom, hence she didn’t have any fun. Oscar gets very upset due to her daughter’s lies, so he leaves her before their house telling her: “Ta punition, mon Angèle, c’est d’être toi, et d’avoir à vivre avec ça”.

Analysis. Who is Leos Carax in this sequence? Is he the father or is he the daughter? Neither of them, since they are actually the same person, the same blood, they embody Carax and how he is seen by others: namely the reviewers and the general audience. The father asks the daughter to come out of her shell, to metaphorically look out onto the contemporary cinema. The daughter, instead, lies to please her father and she lingers on in the past. Carax is in-between: he’s in the present. He nourishes the past thus creating a different future. Carax’s punishment is to be himself and live with this peculiarity, for him, the film director, this anathema is not actually a punishment, but his art expression.

Fifth character: Intermission

Synopsis. Monsieur Oscar enters a church with an accordion, he then starts playing it, marching along with other musicians.

Analysis. This character is not like the other ones. It might seem paradoxical, but he is himself. It’s Oscar, without any costume on, he is himself and he plays gipsy music with other musicians. When is Oscar really himself? When is he acting and when he isn’t? Is a costume enough to turn an actor into a character? No, it is not. An actor, as whoever else, is always a character in their social life, and they change according to the context they live in. so much so that in ancient Greece an actor was called “hypocrites”. Being actors doesn’t mean acting (faking), but being true, authentic. The first part of the analysis ends here, for the fifth character is an outright intermission, it’s the lunch break in a schedule full of appointments. 

Sixth character: Alex vs Théo

Synopsis. Monsieur Oscar gets dressed as Killer Alex, and, seemingly without any reason, kills Théo, a night worker who has the same face as Alex’s, although they don’t share the same features. After the murder, Alex shaves and dresses Théo so that he would look exactly like him (meaning Alex). But, just after Alex has finished doing Theo’s make up, the “new Alex” (meaning Théo) stabs Alex in the neck, and in spite of being injured, he is able to drag himself towards the limousine with the help of Céline.

Analysis. Alex is Carax’s real name and it is also the character’s name in the film-director’s starting triology. Alex is portrayed by Oscar (that is Carax’s second name by the way). He is on the lookout for “The Actor”, namely “The Fiction”. He mindlessly murders Théo because he is a different character. Although, as soon as Alex/Monsieur Oscar dresses Théo like Alex, Théo ceases to be himself, for he becomes Alex, hence he can’t be dead because “one” Alex is still alive (namely the “Alex/monsieur Oscar” who has committed the murder). This is why Théo’s character can stab Oscar in the chest, because that is not the character he has been portraying since a moment before, but it is another one (namely “an Alex” who is a ruthless low-ranked mobster). Having said that, despite a stab wound in his neck, Alex/Mosieur Oscar does not die because Théo/Alex is alive, because he is alive outside and despite the actors, in that moment the character is alive “on” the bodies of Oscar and Théo. In other words, after dressing alike, the two are the same thing, they are the same character, it doesn’t matter who they are in real. As such, they can’t kill one another because once one is dead, the other is supposed to die as well. Alex gets to the automobile by dragging himself, almost dying until he gets out of the character he’s portraying and he’s back being Monsieur Oscar, ready for another rehearsal.

The Glitch: the boss and the hitman.

Synopsis. Getting back on the limousine, Oscar realizes that there’s another person present: his boss. He has come to check the main character’s work. He gets informed about how the job is going on and he notices Oscar’s mental and physical exhaustion. So much so that the boss asks his employee whether he has lost faith in what he’s doing and what makes him carry on.He answers “Je continue comme j’ai commencé, pour la beauté du geste”. After the boss gets out of the limousine, the series of appointments seem to go on, but Oscar asks Celine to pull over the car before Fouquet’s restaurant. Here he gets off the car barechested and, with a red mask on, he heads toward the restaurant and shoots at his alter ego sitting there. He is blocked and killed by bodyguards. Cèline reaches Oscar’s unconscious body and whispers in his ear “Monsieur Oscar, nous allons nous mettre en retard”. Only then Oscar gets up and gets in the limousine.

Analysis. Michel Piccoli, who portrays Oscar’s boss, has the duty to portray the most eminent of all French actors. He gets into Oscar’s schedule like a glitch. He is worried because he dreads that Oscar is doing what he does only for money, like many other actors, without feeling his work. Oscar reassures Piccoli though, because Oscar’s interest still is the act of the characters he portrays, not the character as such. But Oscar complains, saying that the film cameras are small and everywhere; the setting covers the real world which is the setting itself. Moreover, it’s not possible to be at one’s best at every single moment of the day, and Oscar’s full schedule would make anyone exhausted. The boss is afraid that creativity would soon be over. After Piccoli gets off the car, Monsieur Oscar wants to prove himself and see if he’s still capable of raising his act to art. He kills himself (or his ater ego) at the restaurant. This glitch seems to jeopardize his schedule, but Celine puts him back on track as usual.

Seventh Caracther: the elderly Mr. Vogan.

Synopsis. Oscar gets dressed as Mr. Vogan, an elderly man on the verge of dying. He gets off the car, enters a hotel and comes in a room. Here he lays on the bed wearing pajamas (there’s a black dog near his feet) and portrays a dying man. At this stage, his niece comes in the room, and talks for the last time to his uncle on his deathbed. Then he breathes his last breath. After a couple of seconds, Vogan gets up, thanks Léa for her performance, asks her what her real name is, and walks away.

Analysis. This sequence, one of the best of the movie in my opinion, starts to clarify the narration. For the first time it’s clear that even the people who show up beside Oscar are actually acting. It is actually not only Oscar who Portrays Mr. Vegan on his deathbed, but also the girl named Elise clearly portrays Léa. This becomes clear soon after the decease of the elderly man, for it’s not Mr. Vogan getting up from the bed, but it’s Oscar, who still wears Mr. Vogan’s costume and make-up. Here lies the poetic sensitivity of an actor. Actors must be able to empathize with the character they’re portraying, but at the same time they must be able to distance themselves from it. Oscar becomes a “Vogan Bearer” (as well as Lèa is an “Elise Bearer”). Oscar is the canvass, his character would not happen without him. There is not a clear separation between fiction and reality, those two are inseparably merged together: the real is the bottom support for showing the real.


Synopsis. After getting on the white limousine, Oscar and Céline head towards another appointment. On the road, Céline bangs into another white limousine. There’s a woman in it, she recognizes Oscar after exchanging glances. They were very bound to each other during their youth (were they also in love?) She is also an actress, the two reminisce while walking together in an old basement. The actress then sings the movie theme song (Who were we?), and after bidding farewell to Oscar (who must carry on his duty), she jumps to her death off the basement roof.

Analysis. The film director switches the movie style to Musical, a movie genre which has become increasingly popular in the last years. In this sequence it is possible to point out the dramatic situation that actors have to live (for they can never be themselves hence they can’t have any real relationship), as well as the unbreakable bound between drivers (who in the context of the movies can be seen as guardian angels) and actors. In fact, the other essential point in this sequence is the relationship between the guardian angel and the person, a theme which was dealt by Luc Besson in AngelA, but it was previously recurrent in Cocteau’s masterpieces Le Testament d’Orphée and Orphée (where the guardian angel is a driver). Without their “ward”, the angel driver doesn’t have any reason to exist: it explains the reason why the angel must follow the woman’s fate after she kills herself.

Eighth Character: the family man rejoins his family.

Synopsis. The working day seems to be over, Céline drops Oscar off in a residential district where the houses all seem to be alike; she pays him and hands him the keys of the house in which he is to spend the night, and they arrange an appointment for the following day at the same time. Oscar walks in the house and, with the french song Revivre playing on the background, rejoins his wife and his two daughters who turn out to be apes. After telling them about his day, he announces them that things are going to change.

Analysis. This is perhaps the most distressing and unexpected scene of the movie. The angel driver says goodbye to Oscar who will portray the family man in the primate family. This last sequence clarifies once again how each moment of one’s life is a pantomime and no one is really ever themselves. Better still: one is themselves only when they act. This sequence reveals something else though: the relationship between Carax and the cinematic art. The song and Oscar’s final words concerning a possible change, forecast a cinematographic rebirth which can’t help passing by the cinema milestones again: from apes to homo sapiens, from Marey’s cronophotographic works (shown throughout the film) to contemporary cinema. It’s not about an horizontal line doomed to end, it’s about a circle that can “revive” every time. Carax, as stated by Les Cahiers du cinéma, is the phoenix that rise from its ashes, just like the cinema must rise from its contemporary ashes thus creating something new without denying the past (that’s why Oscar is not an ape: he represents the present in comparison with the past, namely the apes). Carax embarks on a distressing and exciting journey in this film; he recalls all the stages of his career as well as all the stages of the cinematic art, and becomes the prophet of the resurrection: perhaps he does not mean the whole cinema (it would sound too conceited), but he certainly means his. May you be born again Carax, although we can’t wait to see your decline and your following rebirth, if you are to create such films every time.


Synopsis. Céline’s working day has come to an end. She drives the limousine in a garage called Holy Motors, where other drivers are parking their cars. She wears a mask and calls someone, saying she is coming home. Once she is out of the garage, the limousines start a discussion and complain about the day; they are worried at the thought that soon they might be replaced by humans. After a some seconds of silence, the film ends with the limousines uttering “amen”.

Analysis. After blowing away the spectators in the previous sequence, one would expect a truce. Instead, another deadly blow hits the spectator: the means of transport have consciousness. But before he gets to that, Carax deals with another important issue: the anonymity of the being. After acting, the angel becomes anonymous and walks away to be forgotten, loosing her hair and wearing a featureless mask. The situation is now overturned, since a mask is not needed to act, it’s instead needed to live in the real world. So, we are forced to pretend (fake) to live, and we must live in the fiction. Hence the well-known statement “soon the men will be replaced my machines” turns into “soon the machines will be replaced by men”. The limousine is the coffin of the cinema, it’s a huge casket that will soon be replaced by the human body. Humans and their bodies will become the tools to make a film, this is what Oscar meant in the previous sequence. It’s actors, not technological whims (the limousine, the computer and the like), who can lead to the rebirth of the cinematic art.

The End

Reviewing Holy Motors is reductive. Few things can still be said: it’s surely the best picture of the year, but some years from now someone will dare say, and I will be one of them, that this is among the ten best films in the history of film. Thank you Leos Carax!

Translated from Italian into English By Michelangelo Fiorella