At first, Holy Motors can seem almost like a copy-paste job of disguises, devices, and thematics from Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Sherlock Jr.: flâneur films in which a man, lost to the world of fictions he created, becomes whatever masks he wears, both cloaking and colorcasting his presence in this conception of the city as a vast, conspiratorial mechanism, a factory of fictions. But for Holy Motors’ sci-fi, that world seems to have enervated into cliché: Denis Lavant is performer but not ever author of this universe and role, and his beggars, tramps, acrobats, and other objects of spectacle dutifully execute their acts without any sense of plot or purpose, like vaudeville functionaries, punch lines without a joke. Whatever the modernist principle here of making the mechanism visible, drawing all of a plastic society’s suppressed elements of industry, the underclass, and bodily functions back to the surface to wreck mayhem (as in Cosmopolis), the conceit here seems basically that these ruffians have themselves been incorporated into the mechanics like automatons at a theme park, that even their visibility is definitive condition as icons in the city’s spectacle-machine. It’s this role as an icon and nothing more that’s maybe the only serious joke of this outward comedy: a gushing fashion photographer falls for one particularly trollish Lavant as if he were the next hot thing; another Denis break-dances in a motion capture suit for a porno ripo-ff of Avatar. But the idea that we are watching the real physics beneath virtual reality is more or less belied by the premise of the place as its own virtual reality, a laser-gridded studio autonomously operated by a fleet of warriors outfitted identically in archer’s holsters and radar sweat-suits.
Real life becomes the avatar for fiction, rather than vice-versa, yet the movie has yet to get any weirder than The Sims. But as it goes on, Holy Motors seems to shift out of this self-reflection as the performances deepen from caricature to some kind of self-effacing introspection: Lavant as dad questioning his daughter’s lies, or as a deathbed benefactor replaying a scene from Portrait of a Lady. It’s as if Lavant were starting to believe his own roles, and Carax his own movie, and at some late point, the audience is defied to believe in some reality past the fiction factory, one in which Lavant and Kylie Minogue were actual lovers beyond the system; while death, throughout the second half, seems to become a possibility on the other side of simulation. Still, the terms of Lavant and Minogue’s 15-minute romance stray nowhere apart from the others; and death remains a simulation of bedside story-telling and situationist street-art as Lavant is mock-murdered in the midst of assassinating a banker. Nothing more than an idea. When, somewhere near the end, Denis confronts and kills another performance-variation of himself, Carax’s sabotage of the flâneur film from the perspective of an emptied, modern world, in which people on the street will only see the simulations of their screens, comes clean. In place of a universe fabricated by grand auteurs dissimulated across the disguises of men from all strata of society, Carax’s universe plays as a self-perpetuating code. One man no longer disguises himself behind a thousand masks, but the masks can assume the same man underneath, a Denis Lavant-icon open to endless self-replication.
So instead of reality underwriting the fiction, the fiction simply loops in its endless operation. Ultimately Holy Motors seems less an update of the first Mabuse than the last: it’s the point of radar and surveillance technology, occasionally fizzling into the artifacts and color banding of the movie’s own aesthetic warp, that they can convert reality into pixels, can keep it running autonomously as an eternal computer program. But still in 2012, these operational devices seek a mechanical reality for their initial content before they can dispose of human input. Carax’s movie, shown at a press screening a half-day after Peter Kubelka’s declaration in the same room that “when film goes down, I go down with it,” becomes a kind of elegy to its own capitulation to this speculative universe, the counterpoint to Kubelka’s, but like it one in which nothing has meaning outside of its moment: it advances a weird tribute that in a place subtended by zero laws of identity, the world can at least become a Fleischer Bros. cartoon, animated into scratch.