Review: ‘Holy Motors’ is Weird and Wonderful
Holy Motors is the kind of art film that people who don’t like art films dread when they hear the term “art film.” It’s French, beautiful, and does very little to make sense in any way other than by its own logic. I barely feel like I “got it” after one viewing, and I think it may take many more before I can fully understand what the movie is trying to do, or even what it is. Director Leos Carax, making his first full-length film after a 13-year hiatus, has constructed an ode to cinema, to acting, and to the interplay between art and life.
A description like that is anathema to the average theatergoer. For many (most?), movies are disposable entertainment, and anything that doesn’t fit into an easy box of what Hollywood has prescribed as “fun,” has trouble finding a wide audience. I’m trying really hard to not be “that” kind of critic and dismiss people who toss aside films like this, but it’s easy to write off Holy Motors as something “weird” or “confusing” or, worst of all, “pretentious.” Even those who consider themselves fans of film sometimes consider watching stuff like this to be akin to eating their vegetables, something do out of a sense of obligation rather than any love for what the piece is trying to do.
But here’s the thing about Holy Motors: even if you don’t get it, you can totally enjoy it. In fact, you can enjoy it even if you aren’t interested in trying to get it. There is so much to appreciate about the film. For one thing, it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and in a purposeful way, not as an unintended side-effect of its strangeness. One segment, for instance, features a filthy troll-like man wandering Paris and randomly eating things. Sometimes it’s thrilling, like in a spectacular, one-shot marching band sequence. It also conjures up some amazing imagery, and not in a Terrence Malick way, but in a variety of settings and styles. And more than once, it’s even affecting. One sequence near the end, featuring two people who might once have been lovers having a final conversation, is particularly emotional, especially taking Carax’s personal history into account (his longtime partner died under ambiguous circumstances).
You might be wondering what the context is for all of these great moments, and might also notice that I still haven’t described the plot of the movie. Well, that would be a semi-empty gesture. There isn’t really a plot. Denis Lavant plays Oscar, whose job has him attend nine “appointments” over the course of a day in Paris. Each appointment has him essentially become a different person and act out a scenario. First he’s a beggar woman. Then he peels on a skintight motion capture suit and simulates sex with a woman. Then he’s an ordinary man driving his daughter home from a party. And so on and so forth. There’s no explanation for what is going on here, and none is really needed (there’s probably none that would make sense).
Each vignette is an excuse to explore a different aspect of the potential of film. The appointments land Oscar in a family drama, a crime thriller, a musical, a romance, a comedy, etc. Carax is high on the potential of the medium, and each section has its own look and feel, hence the variety of staggering imagery that I mentioned earlier. There’s reams of references built into the movie, only a tiny fraction of which I detected during my screening. Just as one example among many, Oscar’s driver, Céline, is played by Édith Scob, and she may or may not be reprising a role she had in Eyes Without a Face, from way back in 1960. Holy Motors is film itself, twisted into a Klein bottle ouroborous lemniscate of dense intertextuality and reflexive meaning (…and now I’m being “that” kind of critic).
At the center of all this is Denis Lavant, who gives the kind of performance that would win Oscars in a world where the Oscars noticed what really counted. To call him a chameleon would be a disservice, he positively shape-shifts through multiple roles as part of his character. Just as he’s in a movie about movies, his acting is all about acting, and the way he inhabits such disparate skins is frankly astonishing. I’ve read at least one person compare him to Lon Chaney, and given how often he has to act through heavy makeup, I’d say it’s quite apt.
Holy Motors isn’t for everyone. But then, no film is for everyone, so there’s no point in setting up qualifiers for artier fare. If you keep your mind open, then this movie will thrust its way in and embed itself irrevocably in your brain. It’s everything that people love about film crammed into a bizarre, hilarious, and sad two hours.