Carax's Oneiric Drive

Holy Motors from EG on Vimeo.

Curator's Note

Philosopher and scientist Gaston Bachelard produced an immense and overlooked body of writing on the poetic imagination, one which privileges the form of the discontinuous instant in an elaboration of oneiric signs. Distinguishing reverie as a sphere in which our novel experience of duration as discontinuity is constituted by contingent encounters with matter, Bachelard elaborated a phenomenological hermeneutic, examining the figural and temporal valence of infinitesimal transformations, movements and rhythms of elemental material – the tremulous flaming of a candle, the furious gusting of a wind, the shimmering of a pool.

Who are the cinematic inheritors of a Bachelardian optic? How might our late-stage cinema take up such oneiric signs? One filmmaker who dreams the ineffability of imaginative movement and metamorphosis is Leos Carax. His recent and awe-instilling Holy Motors (2012) conceives the “cinema situation,” or our contemporary dispositif, as a series of unexpected instants. Oscar’s (Denis Lavant) acts of performative labor continually undo any fixed diegesis, insisting on the flight of imagination, and on the image’s evasion of any conceptual fixity. It has been widely noted that the film is deeply reflexive–it is “about” cinema as an archive of reanimated affective fragments, about loss and the ethical melancholy of the digital abyss. But it is also a film that in its unforeseen turns indulges in the boundless drive for images, images indissoluble from the aleatory sensations they incite. The film invokes the primacy of mimetic movement, in performance’s staging of mutation and transfiguration, as well as the attendant corporeal exhaustion it exacts.

Bachelard’s impressionist method sees reverie as a mode of “living what has not been lived” and an encounter with the “sudden image,” a poetics “independent of causality.” Holy Motors manifests this sensibility in the singular nature of each episodic appointment, each deformation of Lavant, whose roles veer from old beggar-woman to creaturely sewer dweller, to thuggish doppelganger, to motion capture stuntman, to wrenching ghost of realisms past. Lavant’s performance, its plasticity and conscripted necessity – a vocational calling to “the beauty of the act” – materializes a figure of inexorability, a circularity that is at once exhilaration and lament. Is this oneiric drive a propulsion towards the singular alterity of unrepeatable, heterogeneous time or a deceptively repetitive loop? In the “end,” Carax opts for the novelty of the reverberating instant, for the irrevocable return of metaphor to metamorphosis in the ecstatic “sonority of being.”


Elena, this is a wonderful reading of Holy Motors. It's so appropriate to use the penultimate scene that ends, as the travels begin, in a house, particularly given Bachelard's abiding interest in the domestic as space of memory, contingency, and depth of experience. Provocative that the film then concludes not in the house-- not in, as you say, the "repetitive loop" but rather in the "novelty of the reverberating instant." Then, a little gift: a moment of movie magic where limousines speak and, eventually, sleep. Perhaps we could read Carax's witty melancholia against both Bachelard and the transformations undergone by spectatorship: from the theater to the home to the mobile device and back, again, to the theater. In concert with Bergson's phenomenological duration, illustrated by the structure of a melody, this spectatorial duration builds on previous experience, not to discard but to layer and to juxtapose. To find the "sonority of being," we might look not just to spectatorships past but to the encounters always present in the text, both constituted by and outside of their space of experience.

The car-space is also very interesting in this film. I'm not sure whether Bachelard ever intended to write a poetics of automobiles, but he should have, given the amount of time we spend there (and in this film, to be sure). The car appears as eco-skeleton too, a becoming animal, in this case specifically, a white snake. Behind a metal skin we are becoming-Jaguar, or Italian horse, or bull, or panther. 'Here in my car, I feel safest of all.' 'It's the only way to live. In cars'. Anthropomorphic and zoomorphic. And the last scene in the garage, referencing Franju's Eyes Without a Face - again, another one hiding behind artificial skin. And wasn't the girl's father in Eyes a vivisectionist who was eventually killed by his own lab animals? Shame then that Carax reduced the chimpanzees in this scene to performing monkeys.

Thanks Elena for a wonderful post and video clip (and John's great comments on the car and becoming-animal). It's very interesting that you mention Bachelard in relation to Leos Carax. It is certainly an extraordinary exercise in poetic imagination, or cinematic imagination since the whole film seems to be about the idea and experience of cinema as a machine that poetises, capturing movement, emotion, and time but also dreams, imagination, and fantasy. The limo seems to be something like a stand-in for the cinema itself: the magic of performance and illusion, a mysterious machine that conveys Oscar on his sojourn through characters, movies, and time (including Carax favourites like Monsieur Merde). I wondered about the fascination with performance in the film, since so much of is about the transformations that occur when those enigmatic 'human somethings' (as Cavell put it) appear on screen, figures that haunt and hypnotise but that we don't really know how to name. Cinematic memory haunts and possesses, merging cultural memory with imaginative fantasy (like Kylie evoking Jean Seberg doing a musical duet with Levant). Holy Motors shows that with delirious intensity. I also wondered about the weird technological and aesthetic 'evolutionary' movements or mutations in the film, from the very origins of cinema to its digital transfiguration (Muybridge to motion capture imagery). We evolve into something else (becoming-other) the more we enter this symbiotic or transformative relationship with the cinema, this mad mind/machine/performance circuit of images. Could this be related to Carax's surreal joke about the domestic kinship between Oscar and his chimp family?

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