28 Jan 2013

Holy Motors - Acting in the public sphere

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Last week, I had a chance to see Holy Motors, a 2012 French film by Leos Carex, which can be read as a send-up to cinema itself, dovetailed interestingly with the concepts of public and private spaces brought up by Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Briefly, Habermas outlines human interactions as occurring in private, smaller or internal exchanges or in larger public and conversational exchanges in which decisions could be made by the participating public.

The film follows a mysterious character Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) who is transported throughout Paris as he participates in a series of situations/events/scenes as an actor playing a participant in each of the events. In an exchange with his employer, Oscar emphasizes his love of performance while lamenting the shrinking size of the cameras. For me, this can be read two ways: that the stage for his performances are shrinking or that the stage has become ubiquitous. Therefore, Oscar’s weariness may be due to the lack of opportunities for real acting.

But there’s a second option, and this is where Habermas comes in - his weariness is from a perpetual state of performance - that the division between private (non-acting) and public (acting) spaces has eroded to a point where Oscar is always acting. This plays with the audiences suspencion of disbelief by winkingly acknowledging it is a movie about an actor (Oscar) portraying people in “real life” is portrayed by an actor (Lavant) as you watch the film in real “real life.”

The notion of an actor literally acting as exciting, bizarre and often mundane everyday people forces you to acknowledge that existence is a participation in the public sphere and that the portrayal of even private moments in a public manner (such as seeing them in a movie) makes those exchanges public also.