Those of us who have ever found the willpower to open a book will most likely be accustomed to the presence of a preface or an introduction; something that frames the story that follows and explicitly introduces the narrative to its readers. Film rarely takes time to speak to its audience like this, and therefore movies are often forced to make the most of the opening scene. Leos Carax’s infamous confuser Holy Motors delivers one of the weirdest, most significant opening scenes.
The first few shots and lines of a movie often announce the film’s atmosphere, implicitly show the narrative’s broad lines and introduce important character arcs. Holy Motors’ start doesn’t introduce any plot, neither does it show a character that is in the film itself. At first sight, the scene seems incoherent and irrational, and the main character of these first few minutes never comes back. However, it is exactly this that forms the promise for the chaotic movie, devoid of any coherence or rationality, that is introduced to us as Holy Motors.
The opening credits are interrupted by some short fragments of black and white early film; we see a naked man running, jumping and throwing something on the ground (a brick?). These shots seem empty in themselves, but warn us that the film isn’t oblivious about its existence as cinema. This feeling is only confirmed when we suddenly see a crowd in a theater. The light comes from the back of the crowd, and we mostly see the silhouettes of the seated members. We hear the disembodied sound of traffic, footsteps, someone screams “no” three times, a gunshot, the horn of a boat, seagulls. We can’t locate the source of the sound, and can only see that the crowd in the theater can’t see it either, for their eyes are closed. Are they sleeping? Are they dead?
The sound of the boat and seagulls continue as we suddenly find ourselves in someone’s room. A man in pajamas gets up from bed and immediately lights a cigarette, which leads us to think that he wasn’t asleep at all. He turns on the light and starts drifting around the room. The insanely dedicated viewers will now have noticed that the man is portrayed by none other than Leos Carax, the director of the very film we are discussing right now! Apparently he wears these sunglasses all the time.¹ Carax’s cameo naturally raises a problem of identity. Is he portraying a character in the film or is he ‘just’ Carax? And if we say he’s only being himself, he is being the director onscreen inside the film’s fantastical world. If he is, is he trying to speak to his audience in any way? Then what is he saying?
In Holy Motors‘ press kit Carax is asked about the film’s peculiar prologue.² He describes the remarkable character choice of Holy Motors‘ introduction.
“So I decided to begin the film with this sleeper who wakes up in the middle of the night and finds himself in his pajamas in a large cinema filled with ghosts. I instinctively called the man – the dreamer in the film – Leos Carax. And so I played him.” (12)
When he thinks of a dreamer in the film, Carax apparently thinks of himself. The sequence that commences after the dreamer leaves his bed, is certainly constructed from dream logic. The stage of the scene is a one-room labyrinth, with which the spectator is constantly deceived and confused. As the dreamer slowly follows the wall and the camera follows him, we come across a door with, seemingly, a window to another room, but as he walks past it, and his movement implies he is looking through the window, he is (and we are) met by his reflection. However, even in front of the mirror, the dreamer looks through it, tries to look around the corner of the suggested window. Then he walks on, turning, and faces a window. The dreamer and we are confronted with the outside world, for the first time, represented by an airport by night, a plane landing. Suddenly we can make sense of the disembodied sounds we first heard, in the cinema as well as in the dreamer’s room. We figure that they probably come from outside, there’s still something off – why is there a boat and seagulls in the middle of an airport? – but the sound is closer to a source than before. The dreamer continues his journey, and then faces the fourth wall. The wallpaper shows a forest, reminds of some late-medieval paintings. The dreamer expects to find something inside the wall, he feels around, almost embraces it. He finds a hole, his finger transforms into a tool and the dreamer opens a hidden door. Carax holds the power to break the fourth wall.
But before we follow Carax into the unknown, let’s take a moment to appreciate the cinematic qualities of the previous sequence. How does one make a labyrinth of a square bedroom? How to make such a room as confusing as possible? Holy Motors shows us that one does not necessarily achieve this with special effects, explicit hallucinations of the dreamer or severe changes in edit. The confusion of this opening scene is a serene confusion, and is only achieved by approaching reality (except for Carax’s finger of course). The room’s individuality is emphasized by the illusion of plurality. The mirror seems to show another room, in it a chair we didn’t see before, and the dreamer, by a certain movement of his physique, sustains this illusion. The windows and the outside world they show are undermined by the representation of a forest in the wallpaper of the next surface, their contrast accentuated by the two-dimensional surface of the trees. The slow movement of the camera virtually shows one wall at a time, and renders the room fragmented and shows the explicit absence of the room’s totality.
Carax moves through the broken forest, enters a new space through the emergency exit and finds himself on the balcony of the cinema we saw before. The balcony is empty, every seat beneath the dreamer is filled with other dreamers. Carax stands above them, looks upon them, and, it seems, thereby gives the most explicit introduction possible. The filmmaker enters the film’s domain, even crosses the projection of the film during his way in, and looks out over its audience. The film can begin, and now we know it’s going to be a great ride.
¹ Kohn, Eric. “Q&A: Leos Carax Explains ‘Holy Motors’ and Why He Wants to Make a Superhero Movie“. Indiewire. October 15th 2012.
² Frodon, Jean-Michel. “Interview with Leos Carax” (PDF). Holy Motors press kit. Wild Bunch. 2012.