Thursday, February 28, 2013

Holy Motors (review) & Oscar Snubs

So every year the Oscars conveniently ignores some of the best performances and/or movies of the year. This year everyone's talking about Ben Affleck getting snubbed for Directing, and—while I admittedly enjoyed watching the Academy cave into the fact that almost every other important award ceremony gave Argo Best Picture—my favorite Oscar snub this year was Holy Motors.

Holy Motors is the first feature film from director Leos Carax in 13 years, and like Joe Williams claims in his review for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch it plays like a bunch of "vignettes... based on cafe-napkin scraps that the director could neither discard nor expand into something coherent." In a certain sense, the scene with Monsieur Merde lying naked on Eva Mendez lap with a huge erection (sorry, Google wouldn't find me a picture of it, so instead here's one of M. Oscar having sex with an insanely flexible, unnamed woman, both of them in motion-capture suits) is a metaphor for the whole movie: it's like watching Leos Carax masturbate, and if that's your thing then it's incredibly enjoyable, but some will undoubtedly find the movie oddly perverse.

Unlike Joe Williams, however, I don't think the movie is incoherent. Holy Motors is fairly evidently a film about film. M. Oscar is basically an actor who plays eleven different roles during the course of the film and whose faith in the power of cinema seems to be waning. One of the first "appointments" he has is what appears to be a sci-fi action movie where he beats up several (imaginary) bad guys in a motion-capture suit and then participates in the act pictured above. In the middle of the movie M. Oscar confronts a man who appears to be his boss (he is credited as "L'homme ├á la tache de vin", "the man with the birthmark") who tells him beauty is in the eye of the beholder and asks, "What if there is no more beholder?" There are a lot of weird moments in the movie, especially at the end when the cars talk to each other, but if you're looking for a clean cut explanation this one fits pretty tightly. I don't really think this reading is the reason you want to watch this film, but it does help make it into more than just a series of vignettes.

Another way to look at the film (centering around the same question of "what if there's no more beholder") is as a struggle to make meaning for yourself in a world where the big Other* ("the beholder") doesn't exist. If the big Other doesn't exist (as Lacan argues it doesn't) then there's no external guarantee that our actions have any meaning. Someone who doesn't believe in the big Other (despite its nonexistence, most subjects believe in the big Other at least unconsciously) in psychoanalytic terms is the definition of a psychotic.** In this reading the movie becomes an enjoyably alienating experience of psychosis, and (apart from one other thing which I'll discuss next) was the reason I loved this movie.

Finally, Holy Motors is just beautiful. In the first few minutes we watch a man known only as le dormeur (played by Leos Carax himself) discover a secret door in his wall that leads into a movie theater (more admittedly obvious but still awesome metatheater). The scene with M. Merde (more pictures because of reasons) is absolutely wonderful. If you want to see something original and perhaps thought provoking you should definitely give Holy Motors a chance.

Oh, and did I mention this movie came out in 2012? And the Oscars ignored it? Despite the fact that the main character's name is Oscar? In the past there have been many Oscar snubs that are very hard to understand (Martin Sheen not getting nominated for Apocalypse Now, John Cazale not getting nominated for The Godfather: Part II, Ray Liota not getting nominated for Goodfellas) and this doesn't really rank among those. It is, however, rather disappointing that it wasn't at least nominated for Foreign Film.

TL;DR: Holy Motors is a very strange and at times slow film that may not grab every audience, but it certainly grabbed me for its metatheatrical elements, its alienating depiction of psychosis, and its beauty in general. Four beers because it's not for everyone, but if it is for you then it might be the best time you've had in a while. Four Zizeks because of its accurate depiction of psychosis which is awesome but doesn't really go anywhere.





*For more analysis of the big Other, check out my review of The Cabin in the Woods.

**Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do, Verso, New York, 2008, p. 151

2 comments:

  1. Took forever for me to read this but I'm finally getting around to your blog and loving it.

    Interesting reading of the Big O. Idk if I totally agree with your reading that the film demonstrates our actions are meaningless without the Big O. I think that without the Big O identity is unstable. In the symbolic self/other relationship the omnipresent Big O offers an imagined Gaze for the subject to hide from, even when separated from a little other. Rather than mean "without the Big O we never have to hide behind our identity," I believe it means we are forced to constantly hide, unsure of when we are being watched. Rather than a figure of psychosis, I propose we think of the lead character as the object-cause of psychosis, as objet a. As the undead lost object he ensures the Big O's existence, ensures psychosis, and stabilizes identity. To put it in Zizek's terms he stabilizes the fluid field of meaning. Read this way the movie doesn't remove the meaninglessness of our actions or reveal the big Other. I think it showcases the absurdity required to generate meaning and identity. The view of this is only visible from the perspective of an objet a, from an undead subject.

    Just my reading/rambling of the film.

    Definitely one of my favorite movies of the year, great review.

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  2. So yeah going back to my review I don't think I was very clear about my thoughts. A huge part of the problem with writing at least a review a week is that if I want to do Lacanian stuff I have to be extra careful/clear. Let me go through what you said and see if I can make sense of what I was trying to say since I think what we're saying is basically the same.

    "Idk if I totally agree with your reading that the film demonstrates our actions are meaningless without the Big O. I think that without the Big O identity is unstable. In the symbolic self/other relationship the omnipresent Big O offers an imagined Gaze for the subject to hide from, even when separated from a little other."

    These, I think, are approximately the same thing. As an "imagined Gaze" the big Other provides meaning for our actions. That doesn't mean that we can't create our own meaning, but only that there's no external guarantor for that meaning. Our words and actions only take on meaning within the Symbolic of which the big Other is the virtual embodiment. I can get some external quotes if you like.

    "Rather than a figure of psychosis, I propose we think of the lead character as the object-cause of psychosis, as objet a. As the undead lost object he ensures the Big O's existence, ensures psychosis, and stabilizes identity. To put it in Zizek's terms he stabilizes the fluid field of meaning."

    You may very well be right about this, but I've never heard objet a analyzed this way. Can you clarify how objet a ensures the big Other's existence? I was under the impression that objet a was part of the Real whereas the big Other is the Symbolic's virtual embodiment and a cursory Google hasn't given me any evidence of a relationship between the two. I'm sure you're not just making this up though so if you could help me out here I'd really appreciate it.

    "Read this way the movie doesn't remove the meaninglessness of our actions or reveal the big Other."

    As above, the absence of the big Other doesn't make life meaningless, it just means there's no guarantor for the meaning we ascribe to our words/actions/etc.

    "I think it showcases the absurdity required to generate meaning and identity."

    This I think is a perfect analysis of the movie and I wish I had said it this way myself. This is why I think there's no big Other in Holy Motors: because there's no external guarantor for the meaning of Oscar's actions he's forced to do all these super silly things. Thank you for this, this is so much clearer than the way I put it ("enjoyably alienating experience" or something).

    Also I have to say thank you so much for commenting. If you've read some of my other reviews you'll notice no one ever says anything either positive or negative, so I really really appreciate it.

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