“I have seen men in real life who so long deceived others that at last their true nature could not reveal itself. In every man there is something which to a certain degree prevents him from becoming perfectly transparent to himself; and this may be the case in so high a degree, he may be so inexplicably woven into relationships of life which extend far beyond himself that he almost cannot reveal himself.”

– Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (1843)

Where do we go when we do not have to be ourselves? In our daily lives, we are surrounded by the faces of others, our visage thusly reflecting those of an external nature. We slip in and out of masks like second skins, but who are we when we are alone? One has to wonder that, when there is no one watching, if we assume a visage at all. With gleeful abandon, Léos Carax takes this notion and runs with it, both figuratively and literally. As a result, Holy Motors is an utterly engrossing, unpredictable, and unforgiving deconstruction of identity and its malleability, effectively blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

Carax’s vision is a surrealist odyssey spanning the course of a single Parisian night in the life of an inscrutable Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), portrayed in a series of seemingly non sequitur vignettes which range from the grotesquely bizarre to the despairingly honest. The way is peppered with religious symbolism, ironic commentary on immortality (‘visit my website’ inscribed on tombstones at Père Lachaise), and loving allusions to great directors of the 20th century, from Cocteau to Fanju to Lynch. Fanju in particular is given significant importance, as Mr Oscar’s chauffeur Céline, as portrayed by Edith Scob, dons an expressionless mask at the end of the film, an indubitable return to her role as the fated Christiane in Fanju’s “Les yeux sans visage” (1960). The centrifugal performance, however, is that of Denis Lavant, who is chameleonic and sensational in his role as he slips with ease in and out of one character into another (again, both figuratively and meta-figuratively). He is at once unassuming, athletic, vicious, pathetic, pitiable, and a complete enigma. Who is Mr Oscar, truly? As the character leaps from ‘appointment’ to ‘appointment’, we are only given evasive glimpses of whether what we are seeing is at all indicative of the man underneath. Where does the character end and the person begin? – or is it, as he says, all “la beauté du geste”?

Nevertheless, even beyond the psychedelically phantasmagorical world that Carax has created, the one that hovers somewhere between the future and fantasy, the film speaks to a greater quandary that has penetrated both film and society alike – the mechanisation of life. At the beginning of the film, a film plays to a packed audience – who are all asleep. Carax presents a world in which, suddenly, the act of watching a film is no longer sufficient. Of the minimal dialogue that does appear in the film, a scene focuses on the increasingly diminished size of the camera (“They used to be heavier than us…then they became smaller than our heads”), a gradual shift away from spectatorship and into an immersive, interactive experience with the world (“Some don’t believe in what they’re watching anymore”). It is more than nostalgia of cinema of the past, though – it is moreso reflective of society’s elevation of the mechanical over the human, the veneration of the “holy motor” over the simple reel. Gabriel Marcel, among others, professed similar fears of the increased reliance and idolatry of mechanisation, and while Carax does not linger on it for too long, the point stands.

In all of its tragicomic absurdity and unfettered love of cinema, Holy Motors is likely the most important film of the year. Oscar treats his world as a stage, and indeed, all the characters appear to be players in it, skirting around the edges of what is real and what is imagined. It is an explosive melange of the progression of cinematic genres, from gangster films to fairytales to the CGI era, all with a touch of the bizarre, all the while juxtaposing, chronicling, and questioning the nature of human involvement and agency in an evolving world, and ultimately demolishing the illusion of immutability.