Existence is in the like of the beholder

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

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 Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Bauman’s liquid modernity. It also pulls us inevitably into the massive black hole opened by Baudrillard and Adorno when it comes to simulacra and simulations, or more specifically to hyperreality.

If you search on Google for examples of hyperreality, you will get Disney and Las Vegas, an energy drink with a nonexistent flavour like “rainbow icy berry”, a plastic Christmas tree that is more aesthetically pleasing than a real pine. In hyperreality, nothing is too good to be true: it is simply true that everything is too good. We have been raised to believe that the neighbor’s grass is greener than ours and that Hollywood is the where dreams are made as we have grown surrounded by the make-believe of advertising and celebrity culture.

Once restricted to physical spaces like a studio, a movie set or the catwalk, the geography of mediatic mythologies has flooded our minds through outdoors, product labels, quotes, jingles, trends, multi/transmedia ads and stories. But there was still some curation or, at least, a frontier to be crossed before you abandoned your humanity and turned into what Morin calls the New Olympians. With social media though, Hollywood is only a few clicks away.

Influencer culture has created a new layer to hyperreality, one in which Instagram feeds and stories are always better than the truth or true because they are too good. Even though we are already aware of the artificiality of social media, we are still there and many times following the bastions of this economy. While some praise these people for having “used the system” in their favour, others beg for consideration, for Olympians are also human. Except they aren’t.

Take the example above. What was supposed to be a quick, possibly meaningless video of this guy presenting his girlfriend turns out to be so overly performed and staged that it grows uncanny in the eye of the beholder. Many memes are born this way and grow endlessly as material for remix: a joke of many, endless layers of performativity. But it is interesting to see how the “hostage girlfriend” meme has inspired other people to join the performance and exaggerate it to the levels of Hollywood action film tropes. We may not be talking like 90s voice actors yet, but we certainly are reproducing things we have seen in media — social or not.

On Tik Tok users are encouraged to remix content and they are offered many tools to create “ambience”: fake background, voice modulator, soundtrack, filters, edition functions. On Tik Tok Hollywood is definitely just a few clicks away. But there’s still place for sarcasm when some overly performed contents bite back as memes or when creators focus their discourse on debunking the performativity of social media.

In Holy Motors though, there is no space for that: no one asks why Mr. Merde, one of Mr. Oscar’s characters, runs into a cemetery, bumps into people and invades a photoshoot. In fact, he is invited to join the session, as the producers think his awkwardness would actually enrich the project (and the performance).

As unscrupulous as Mr. Merde is, he is still an asset for publicity as much as many people who went viral on the internet for different reasons were invited to advertise services and products later on. By the way, even death doesn’t escape performance in Holy Motors, for we are able to see a tomb where there’s no name or memoir of the deceased, but a call to action to visit a website.

Mr. Merde doesn’t accept to take part of the photoshoot as a supporting actor. He chooses to kidnap the model (Eva Mendes) and take her to the sewer, where they turn into living baroque portraits.

No matter what he does to her: he can tear the model’s dress apart, eat her hair, carry her around, change her clothes, undress in front of her; she never says anything , for she is a vessel, a mannequin that wears the outfit and poses for the scenario scripted by someone else. Almost like an America’s Next Top Model episode in which the competitor needs to roleplay Mary and simply witness her fate.

After Harlem Shake, you never know if you are caught in the middle of a flash mob, an artistic performance, or if you just happened to be under the aim of a TikToker’s camera. It is no wonder that Holy Motors includes a brief scene that turns the movie into a musical led by Kylie Minogue: musicals are the epitome of hyperreality as they turn something completely fake and unlikely into normal if not desirable. For Millennials, it was High School Musical, for Gen Z, it’s TikTok.

If it is true that we are never our “true selves” for we are an amalgam of the Ego, Id, and Superego, aren’t we all performing all the time? Aren’t we all wearing masks and playing personas? The tweet above features a woman who photographed another woman reading a book at a bar, suggesting that it was all performance to get attention. On Tumblr, I remember someone saying something like “imagine hating yourself so much that you think everyone is performing”. But… aren’t we all?

The many stagings of capitalism

Curiously, Holy Motors was released only a few months after Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, an adaptation of a book written by Don DeLillo in 2003. In both titles, we have white limos that drive the protagonist throughout big cities (Paris and Manhattan).

In Cosmopolis, we watch the world burn as capitalism finally disintegrates. We see a young millionaire, Erik Packer (Robert Pattinson), cutting through the chaos only to get a haircut in the suburbs. In the meantime, he is visited in the car by advisors, doctors, lovers. He learns during the drive that he is no longer millionaire as the system he co opted with has collapsed, his prostate is asymmetric (a possible sign of cancer), and a friend has died.

In the paper Allegories of contemporary: a dialogue between Cosmopolis and Holy Motors (2016), the authors offer a throughout analysis of both films, flagging similarities and discrepancies which render a reflection on the state of late capitalism and technology. Both films take place in a near, but unknown future permeated by not too far fetched technological devices which mediate the interactions between the characters and the world.

Both Holy Motors and Cosmopolis’ white limos work as a shelter that protects the characters from the world. It is a break for Mr. Oscar in between performances, whereas it is a protection from the chaos which Packer wants to take part of to finally be.

In the article, the authors mention the scene when Packer shoots his bodyguard, deliberately choosing to escape his make-believe world. They also describe how Packer’s physical appearance (clothes and hair) grows messier, just like his attitudes through the day. Even when faced with real danger, it is Packer who shoots himself in the hand, as if it would work like a light switcher in a dream. It is only after he sees the fuming bullet hole in his hand that he goes back to himself and realises everything was real all along, no matter how staged it felt like.

Similarly, in Holy Motors everything and nothing is real. When we think Mr. Oscar is finally heading back home after his last assignment, it turns out that this was the assignment itself and that the chauffeur is coming back the next day, at the same time, for the same routine. After parking the limo in a garage of equally white limos, the chauffeur wears a mask that gives a nod to the character the actress played in Eyes Without a Face. Is she heading to her new assignment too?

Reality shows as metastatic metaphors

It is only during the last assignments that we see Mr. Oscar “leaving the scene”. Before that, we watch him getting shot and barely making his way back to the limo. However, when portraying a dying man in conversation with his niece, he only spends a few seconds on the dying bed until “the scene can be cut”, so he can stand up and leave the set, saying goodbye to the other “actress”.

Up to this point, I was wondering if the people with whom Mr. Oscar interacts with were actually hiring him to “revive” or live a certain experience like in a escape room or haunted house. But it transpires that some of them are also taking part of the act, being filmed by cameras they cannot see anymore. Once, celebrities could luckily spot paparazzi, now, everybody has a camera inside their pockets to capture everyone else.

As much as Mr. Oscar lives the world as in a reality show, Brazilians are watching Big Brother less for the honesty and “humanity” of the participants than for their performance. It wouldn’t be reasonable anymore to make winner a guy who cries in isolation and turns a broom into a companion (like it did in the first edition). Now, Brazilians are watching Big Brother for the “strategy” or the performance the participants (or actors) are willing to play. It is no wonder that most recent editions are featuring competitors that are indeed actors, singers, or digital influencers.

When interviewed after leaving the house, a recent participant (who is also a digital influencer) mentioned that nothing changed after he joined the game — perhaps because his performance never stopped or will stop? In fact, he is even selling the opportunity to spend one month with him at his home for some thousands of dollars.

In the age of the algorithmic fame, everything is performance, even when it is not. The authors of Allegories of contemporary suggest that both Holy Motors and Cosmopolis criticise late capitalism by exploring the liquidity and rarefaction of contemporary life:

In the empire of nihilism, all existential guarantees are suspended. The tension established by both movies points towards the challenge of dealing with an increasingly more disseminated nihilism: are we going to succumb to chaos or will we find a means to acknowledge existence, amor fati as a possible choice?

For Vilem Flusser, there is no such thing as causality or fate: everything is chaotic, random, impossible to be explained or to be chosen as there is also no such thing as free will. For him, life is a black box and we don’t know how it works, but we are still performing in front of cameras and taking our parts in many roles.

One is not simply a mother, a wife, a woman, a sister, a daughter, a writer, a dancer, a painter, and an artisan, though we try to consolidate our existence in acknowledgeable ways when we mold ourselves in the likes of the algorithms. It is the part that makes me a writer the role I want to perform here, for it is your likes and your views which are the proof that there is still a beholder for my existence.

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin

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