Existence is in the like of the beholder

An essay about Holy Motors, Cosmopolis and performativity after social media

Lidia Zuin
9 min readMay 9, 2022

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Warning: The text might have spoilers of the movies Holy Motors and Cosmopolis

Holy Motors (2012) is one of these movies that you just like, but not necessarily understand. Still, it’s not completely ridden of meaning, though it can appear encrypted under many layers of symbolism.

The story was crafted to cause restlessness as we follow the many “incarnations” of Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) — a man sometimes turned into an elderly lady beggar, a father driving his daughter back home, or a deranged weirdo who eats dead flowers and roams through the Parisian sewers.

But there are a few moments of clarity, like that one when a supervisor joins Mr. Oscar in his white limo turned a moving dressing room to say “some people” are supposedly not happy with his performance. Oscar argues things are much harder those days, since one cannot see the cameras anymore, but you are still being watched and need to carry on with your act. That’s the beauty of it.

— Beauty? They say it is in the eye of the beholder.
— And if there’s no more beholder?

It is no wonder that Holy Motors’ protagonist is named the same way as the biggest movie award. The dialogue implies that Oscar is indeed performing the roles assigned to him, but we never really know who the real Oscar is — perhaps the man in-between characterisation and performance? The only person that seems to know the “real Oscar” is the chauffeur played by Edith Scob, or at least care about the human “behind the actor”. In any case, the show must go on (and on).

Holy Motors could be used as a metaphor to gig economy for portraying an endless shift in which the worker needs to perform many unconnected jobs or roles, and it never ends. But bare with me, for I want to suggest that the film has captured much of the pathos surrounding contemporary social media and how they have impacted our own existence or sense of performativity.

The movie indeed feels like someone has put many beloved media philosophers in a blender, since it takes us right inside the belly of…

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Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.