Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012) is a film about a film. But what exactly is "film?" How can we define cinema? Carax tries to answer these questions by blurring the boundary line between real life and film, between the real and the imaginary through Holy Motors. When the two intersect we are able to realize that our life, our reality is essentially a performance.
Carax believes the essence of film is acting and performing by using one's physical body. From 19th century Etienne-Jules Marey's chronophotographic gun to today's ditigal technology, the cinema has been developing for over 130 years. The improvement of machinery enabled mass production in the film industry, makeing more films accessible to the society. The epilogue of Holy Motors starts with brief clips of a running man. Next we see a mysterious man waking up and discovering a secret door hidden in the wall in his apartment room. He enters a crowded, yet silent movie house. The eyes of the audience are closed, their bodies stiff; they almost look dead. The opening clips in the beginning of the epilogue belong to Etienne-Jules Marey, a French physiologist who conducted numerous studies on human body and motion. His clips thus convey a tone of nostalgia of earlier days of the film industry. Unlike the passive, mechanical movements of the audience, the man in the clips carries out active physical performancs. The mystery man (played by Carax, the director himself) looks feeble, so small in front of the huge movie screen. In all, I believe the epilogue celebrates the development of the cinema, but simultaneously points out the lack of physical movement in today's digitalized films and the passiveness of the audience.
Carax's affection for pure physical performance continues to be shown in the character named Oscar in the next nine episodes (divided into Act I and Act II). Act I of the episodes focuses on portraying the beauty of performing. Oscar comes out of his luxurious house, posing himself as a wealthy businessman. His assistant Céline is waiting for him in a limousine. She tells Oscar that he has nine "appointments" in that day. For his first appointment, Oscar dresses up as an old beggar in the streets. We directly see Oscar combing a wig and putting makeup on his face before he act. In the next sequence, he is a motion capture actor who vividly performs a simulated sex with an actress (which once again underlines the digitalized technology in film). The importance of the use of body constantly reappears in the sequences.
In Act II, acting starts to pervade the real life. Act II, the boundary line that differentiates the real world and the cinema fades away. In the fifth and sixth sequence, for example, Oscar "kills" people who look identical to him and Oscar himself also gets "murdered" by others. At the end, however, Oscar returns to the limousine, alive, and gets ready for his next appointment as if nothing happened. When we saw the sequences in Act I, where he assumes the role of a beggar or a motion capture actor, we were fairly certain that what Oscar is doing is “acting”; in other word, it is not real. Now, we are no longer certain if this is real or not. We now recall the first time Oscar we met in Holy Motors. We believed that when he walked out of his house, he was the true version of Oscar. Every role Oscar has appears looks real and unreal at the same time. The act of making distinction between reality and film becomes useless. The prologue of Holy Motors further completes the identification of the real world and the unreal world. Céline drives the limousine to the Holy Motors garage then she places a mask as if she readying herself for a performance. As soon as we believe this eventually might be the end of the fantasy, another fantasy appears. The reality is then inseparable from the cinema, the fantasy.
Oscar transforms into a different person each time he gets out of his limousine; the limousine is the movie theater, and also the place where film is made. Moreover, at the end of the prologue, the limousines talks to one another, expressing their fears that they may be considered outdated and unwanted. As we hear the discription, "outdated", we might be able to think about the Lumière Brothers’ train. In the 19th century, the screening of a train itsef was an exciting spectacle for the audience. But now, trains are "outdated". They are old, bulky, just as the limousines. Ultimately the limousines represent the one of the earliest cameras, the earliest period of the cinema history. Taking Oscar from one place to another, the whole travel and distance indicates the passage of time in the film industry.
Through the prologue and epilogue which starts and ends Holy Motors, we realize we are the lifeless audience from the prologue. We also realize life is a mask, a mask is an act, an act is a movement, and movement is the "motor" of cinema, the causation which makes film appear beautiful. Within this interconnection, we find deep awe and beauty. Life is cinema.