“What is fantasy when scripted shows that dominate popular culture are labeled ‘reality’ and social media allows everyone to be their own celebrity and put on their own performance of their best self?”
The concept of metafilm may have its visual origins in early documentary and experimental silent films where cameras and crew were captured intentionally or otherwise. Today the term meta has become overused and misused by filmgoers and critics alike. Some attribute genre spoofs like the Scary Movie franchise and any film that pays homage to an earlier era in filmmaking as metafilms, implying that any level of self-awareness or self-consciousness qualifies a film as “meta.” No matter the contextual usage, there are obscure examples of metafilms and more concrete examples. The following American and foreign films fall into the latter category.
The most famous metafilm is probably Federico Fellini’s 81/2 (1963), where the struggles of the filmmaking process and the director’s dilemmas play out like a surrealist circus show. Other examples are Godard’s Le Mepris (1963) and Truffaut’s La Nuit Americaine (1973). There are metafilms with varying narratives. Some follow the production of a film while on set and the drama that ensues, like the aforementioned foreign films, the American independent classic Living in Oblivion, and more recently Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, NY, which is actually a theater-set production but similar reflexive dramatic elements are tackled. Then there are narrative critiques of Hollywood like Robert Altman’s The Player, Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture, Tim Burton’s classic biopic Ed Wood, and the surreal experience of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. Perhaps in a category all its own is the screenwriter’s dilemma in the Hollywood system, depicted exceptionally in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) and the brilliant Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman collaboration Adaptation (2002). However, a more recent film emerged to propel the metafilm definition to a new and fantastic multidimensional sphere. Only through an adequate breakdown of this film can the reach of those dimensions be fully understood.
After a thirteen-year absence from directing his last feature film, Pola X, French director Leos Carax returned in 2012 with Holy Motors, a meta-metafilm masterpiece that carves its own categorical niche in the metafilm archives. Throughout the film, Carax tangos with innumerable self-conscious visual and story metaphors, none more obvious than the opening scene where the director appears with his back to the camera curled up on a bed in the fetal position. He has been in a slumber, a sort of hibernation, an absent and passive cinematic fixture observing from the shadows all that has changed since his days as a promising young talent of the 1980s French auteurs. His absence could be attributed to a budget snafu on Les Amonts de Pont Neuf (1987) and the alienating business drudgery of feature filmmaking in any market. Perhaps he was disillusioned and uninspired or just plain unable to ever get a single project out of preproduction. Regardless of the reasons behind Carax’s hiatus, in the interim things have changed profoundly for both consumers and producers of film. Popular entertainment and new delivery mediums — the emergence of the Internet, social media, reality television, and ambiguous platforms for identity subterfuge and prefabricated celebrity — have profoundly altered our visual experiences. This collection of changes is a theme at the heart of Holy Motors, not always on the surface but simmering just below with a nuanced subtlety likely lost on most casual viewers. Is this what finally rouses Carax from his long period of hibernation? It appears much has happened in the world of cinema, and this director has something to say. What better way than through the glorious medium that consumed him from an early age?
From the fetal position on the bed, loud horns, the sound of a ship embarking on a voyage, rustles the director awake. The voyage is about to begin and he better not miss the boat, or perhaps he is the captain at the command of his duty. This vessel reference could imply a double entendre pertaining to the film itself that will become a journey for the viewer, but also a technological transformation in filmmaking and cinema that is already long underway, one that Carax seems reluctant to accept yet acknowledges he must inevitably embrace. At the very least his curiosity is piqued. He stumbles past a window, in the background an airport runway and a plane landing. At the edge of the room we see a wall, papered with trees. Out from the wilderness the director is ready to face civilization again. He searches for the source of the noise, a door with a keyhole to which only he has the key, an extension of himself at his index finger. He puts his extension in the hole, turns the key, and forces his way through the forest wall, a portal to a modern-day cinema where a screening of King Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd is underway. Cut to a still shot of an audience, their eyes closed, their faces expressionless, and their participation completely obsolete. Perhaps Carax is asking, “What is the role of the cinema audience today?” The answer could be interpreted in many ways (if Carax even knew himself), though it’s hard not to interpret this to mean a resounding “nothing!” Their eyes are closed to what the beauty and art of cinema once offered and can still offer; they are incapable of any reaction; catatonic, lobotomized, rendered passive by the hollow triumph of specta-drivel brain-frying 3D superhero comic book blockbusters, endless bankable sequels, prequels, adaptations, and remakes, palpable pretentious “indies,” and everything in between. The director has wakened and observes from above and behind the audience beside the projector, qualified at measuring their experience, diagnosing their condition. He’s ready to provide the remedy to symptoms for which there may not be one, but at the very least he’s ready to try.
The show begins, a show for Carax to indulge the potential of the language of celluloid and now computer visuals, a show of what is possible when the rules of filmmaking are shoved aside, the imagination of storytelling goes berserk, the loyalty to single genre is betrayed while a multigenre approach is performance simulated within the story, and risks are taken without the adverse consciousness of commercial consequences that so often blind the director’s vision. An absent audience frees the director from the fetters of monetary and cathartic expectancies. But what else happens when there is no audience any longer? What is the role of the director, the actors, and the story? The show goes on, and gradually, like a veil being slowly lifted off a captured and blindfolded prisoner, answers to these questions become apparent. Ultimately it is in the love of the art, in the simple act of it as we will eventually learn, and nothing else, nobody else matters.
The story opens on a mansion shaped like a sea vessel. Leaving his temporary family is a short and portly businessman in an expensive suit. Here we are introduced to Carax’s longtime collaborator Denis Levant, playing the lead role of Monsieur Oscar, playing the role of a wealthy business tycoon with bodyguards, and eventually playing the role of nine other characters. Oscar enters a white limousine where Celine, played by Edith Scob, transports him to each assignment. She is his chauffer, a personal assistant, and later confidant.
The audience is unsure of what is transpiring as Oscar removes his tycoon costume and transforms himself into his next “assignment” right in the back of the moving limousine that is filled with a vanity mirror and endless props. He emerges beneath the Pont d’Alexander III ,where the late-night weapons buy in the 1998 John Frankenheimer action film Ronin was set. Only now Oscar is an elderly gypsy lady and beggar, hunched over with a walking crutch. Above on the bridge he plays the role to perfection. But who is he playing to? People pass by ignoring him playing her. She rattles a cup for change asking existential questions such as “How am I still alive?” Once again, who is Oscar playing to? Are we the viewers of Holy Motors his audience, or are others watching also within the story? Are people that we pass by randomly in this world just actors playing different roles even for the brief moment we encounter them? Are we all just actors in one big play performing for one another? Ambiguity features prominently, opening the doors like any great work to the viewer’s interpretation of endless thought-provoking questions.
Paris plays a prominent role in the film, serving as a backdrop for eight more assignments that Oscar will entertain throughout the day, each one encompassing elements of a different genre from a high-profile assassination of his first character late in the film (killing a character he himself portrayed) to a dramatic fatherly role toward a teenage daughter, to a botched vengeful knife murder where the murderer must transform his victim into himself with clothing and makeup (to fake his own death?), and as soon as he does becomes the victim he set out to murder, both identical characters laying side by side with knife wounds to the right side of their throat, their blood pooling into one collective. It is a scene with the psychological depth of identity and determinism that leaves the most discerning viewer perplexed and enthralled. Then there is a melodramatic death scene taken from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady where the regretful and existential dialogue seems to speak through Carax and to Carax. His daughter plays the role of the niece visiting her dying uncle, and it’s hard not to deduce that the scene was inspired by the recent death of Carax’s longtime partner just a year before the film’s production. There is the unforgettable reprised role of Merde (from Carax’s contribution to the shorts collection Tokyo), an absurd pesky one -eyed sewer creature who terrorizes a fashion shoot in Pere Lachaise cemetery, abducting the American supermodel and taking her back to his subterranean lair where he covers her “beauty” in a makeshift burka and displays his phallic yet passive affection after disrobing and gently resting his head in her lap.
The cliché appears later in a dialogue exchange with a presumed producer and the actor Oscar that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Oscar’s reply is ominous: “And if there is no more beholder?” Perhaps another reference to the audience being either absent or incompetent or victims of a sloth art, or possibly to the transformation of cinematic roles and expectations, even the technological transformation to digital. With cameras smaller and smaller, and even implied here as invisible, the “eye” is a reference to the camera lens, and what happens when that is absent. If there is no camera, then to the actor there is no audience, and the performance becomes an isolated act of increased difficulty. The dialogue of this scene is quintessential to grasping the metafilm concepts and will be explored later in greater depth.
In Oscar’s third assignment of the day he dons a motion capture performer’s suit and arrives at a mass industrial complex where multistory buildings house individual rooms for motion capture. Oscar does some martial arts acrobatics, runs while firing a machine gun on a treadmill in front of a green screen, and engages in an erotic foray with a blonde contortionist in a red plastic suit, simulating oral pleasure as they intertwine their bodies for the computers to capture and render into animated creatures.
The art of filmmaking has evolved greatly since the days of a static tripod-mounted camera, the film cranked by hand for immediate exposure at a fast frame rate, the classic cameraman’s role to capture what he sees before him as in Dziga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Camera. In the decades that followed, technology changed how films were produced, how films were viewed, and the capabilities have been expanding exponentially ever since. Today computers can produce and reproduce just about anything for the screen. The Hollywood special effects industry features prominently in even the most low-tech productions. All of these changes affect the director’s role, the actor’s performance, and the audience’s viewing experience. When asked at the press conference at the 2012 Cannes film festival for Holy Motors what camera was used in production, Carax replied firmly, “We didn’t use a camera. We used a computer.” Yes, it is true that celluloid is dying a slow death, for better or worse. Every epoch of technological transformation meets the good with the bad, the vocal winners of the talkie era with the losers of the silent’s overnight demise. The 2012 Oscar winner for Best Picture was a silent film, The Artist. It dramatizes this dilemma in film history, and perhaps the Academy, by paying homage to a bygone era recognized that the industry is at a similar crossroads in the production and consumption of cinema. Great storytelling and films didn’t need sound then and they don’t today. Great filmmaking today doesn’t need digital motion capture, but regardless, it’s here to stay, and the efficiency on many levels of shooting films on “computers” instead of cameras will likely mean the death of celluloid.
The recurring theme of death and existence tie the various assignments together along with the world of “reality” in the story where Oscar presides when he is not immersed in a role-playing adventure. On this day, all of Oscar’s roles resonate with his own role as a veteran actor presumably in the employ of Holy Motors. The various characters (in order of appearance) and their encounters with death or references to their own existential dilemmas are abundant, but unlike the characters of David Lynch films for example, death is impossible for an actor performing a role:
- The business tycoon is assassinated that evening at the restaurant meeting he discusses on the phone from the back of the limo in the morning.
- The old lady beggar speaks of her age, her existence, questions how she is not dead yet, or rather how she is still alive and nobody notices her.
- The motion capture performer is merely a physical role to serve a virtual existence through digital rendering.
- Merde is the subterranean creature who emerges from his sewer netherworld to terrorize people above ground, for his own amusement or for ours.
- A father picks his daughter up from a party. She lies to him, and arguing and disappointment result. Her punishment for lying, he claims, “is to be you. To have to live with yourself.”
- As the assassin who murders, tries to fake his own death, and once two of the same character exist, both become murderer and murdered.
- Oscar’s encounter with the presumed producer in the limousine as he prepares for his next assignment. The producer claims that he’s always been sure that he’d die someday. The details of this scene appear after this list.
- At a restaurant on the Champs Elysee he assassinates the business tycoon, a role he played to open the film; then he is killed by the tycoon’s bodyguards.
- The old man on his deathbed. The dialogue with his niece: “What does it matter if I’m tired now? There’s no harm in making an effort when it’s your very last . . . . You know they talk about the angel of death. The most beautiful of all. You’ve been that for me . . . . Nothing makes us feel so alive as to see others die. That’s the sensation of life, the feeling that we remain. Life is better, Lea, for in life there is love.” They exchange more dialogue, and then Oscar acts out his death. The actors exchange pleasantries as they depart for their next assignments, saying they hope to work together again soon.
- His encounter with Kylie Minogue, playing another Holy Motor’s actor and his ex-lover. A musical genre vignette unfolds inside the empty bowels of the famed department store La Samaritaine. They are surrounded by mannequin parts scattered around like old actors that once performed a role, but now no longer of any use, with no purpose, just their interchangeable bits left behind for scraps. She sings an existential love song with lyrics like “Who were we when we were who we were back then? While some go on living.” The encounter ends with her next character, a stewardess jumping from the roof to her death just as her lover calls.
- The limousines at the end speak to each other, a reference to the animated feature Cars; however their dialogue is in line with the existential theme, “They’ll soon have no use for us. We’ll all be taken to the junkyard.”
Past the midpoint of the film a producer pays Oscar a visit in his limousine. The exchange sheds light on many unanswered questions, while offering up even more.
We thought you were great tonight. But tell me this.
Do you still enjoy your work? Some of us think you looked a little
tired recently. Some don’t believe in what they’re watching anymore.
I miss the cameras. They were once heavier than us.
Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can’t
see them at all. So sometimes I too find it hard to believe in it all.
Isn’t that a bit nostaligic? Thugs don’t need to see security cameras
to believe that they are there. (later) What makes you carry on Oscar?
What made me start: the beauty of the act.
Beauty? They say it’s in the eye, the eye of the beholder.
And if there’s no more beholder?
And so death and existence and a raison d’etre enter into Oscar’s world just like they did all the characters he inhabited in his many years as an actor. Here we have a ninth character,who up until this point has been rather silent and passive, and through this exchange of dialogue we have the film’s meta moment where Carax may be speaking through Oscar. All his self-doubt, nostalgia for a bygone era of filmmaking, and reluctance to embrace the new “methods” come out through his actor’s character, an actor who’s been at it for a while, who carries on in the face of critics, self-doubt, unbearable changes he must adapt to, all because of the reason he started: the beauty of the act.
Holy Motors plays out in a way that’s unique from other metafilms, with a subtextual focus on the actor’s dilemma, the director’s dilemma, the audience’s role, identity, technology, transformation of process and method, and the simulated performance of multiple genre vignettes that all beg the question “What is happening to cinema and filmmaking in this world of techno-fused virtual reality?” The bizarre unpredictability that pervades each assignment forces the viewer to want to know what happens next. This is, of course, the age-old formula for winning storytelling; however, with the predictability of so many films today, with overrun trailers and ever-recycled formulas, any intelligible audience is no longer left asking “what happens next?” That question seems to have died long ago as cultural critic Theodore Adorno posited way back in 1945. The audience knows what happens next, and expect to be treated to the outcome of their assumptions, occasionally enthralled with a slight “twist,” yet satisfied with the catharsis that comes with “sticking with it until the end” and leaving the cinema with little more than what they could have deduced from viewing the trailer at home with minimal effort. Metafilmic reaction to that formulaic predictability comes in spurts. It came and went with Fellini, Godard, and Truffaut and returned with Lynch, Altman, and Kaufman, and it’s here in all its reactionary glory in Holy Motors.
Because Carax has created an unpredictable and ambiguous world, the respective genres portrayed do not need to adhere to the element of predictability common in single-genre films, though they often still do to brilliant effect, almost as if each short vignette could outperform any feature today of the same genre even without a beginning or an end as many “assignments” start in the middle and are left unresolved. Some have called the film surrealist, and while it’s hard to argue for this story in reality, it’s also not difficult to argue that what passes for reality today is pure fantasy and vice versa. What is surreal when reality becomes as such? What is fantasy when scripted shows that dominate popular culture are labeled “reality” and social media allows everyone to be their own celebrity and put on their own performance of their best self? What actually happens that could not happen in reality outside the inevitability of death, which cannot occur in a simulated performance? Perhaps nothing and everything. The line between fantasy and reality, between identity and performance, between spectacle and spectator, between simulation and imitation, the roles of director and audience, of actor and character, of art and entertainment, of bemusement and amusement are all interwoven in a tantalizing web of subjective interpretation that makes Holy Motors the most meta of metafilms to date and a revolution in cinematic art.