REVIEW: ‘Holy Motors’ (2012)

Grade: A-

Leos Carax is not strictly speaking a filmmaker. When you barely eke out of a film each decade, it’s somewhat presumptuous to assume such, and Carax doesn’t make any illusion of that. Filmmakers often have some kind of expectation assigned to their names, and while Carax is known for bringing some level of brilliance to the table when he does emerge, his “style” is largely a mystery. More to the point, I don’t believe most filmmakers would launch such a hands on celebration, critique, and obituary of cinema as Holy Motors. You could almost say Carax is a closeted filmmaker, existing outside the occasionally messy business and gleaning whatever he will for his own purposes. That makes him perhaps the only person capable of tackling the medium head on, and yet barely at all.

You can’t honestly say that Holy Motors is not about cinema in some form. One of the opening shots of the film shows a theater audience, mirroring us with gray illumination and vacant expressions on their faces. Just as this indicates a film about movies, it also opens the door for a meditation on what the movies themselves are often preoccupied with: Life. At first that is all we assume of the daily goings of the man Oscar, played by Denis Lavant in a performance that could well put him on the map as a desirable property. In my eyes, though, he was desirable years back for his less showy and more intimately devastating work in Beau Travail. Oscar is the sort of man who demands a wide array of physical capability, especially given the unusual nature of his line of work. The simplest way of putting it is that he’s driven around Paris by limousine driver Celine, played by Edith Scob, fulfilling numerous “appointments” every day.

Rather than a beneficial job as a doctor, teacher, or even a getaway job, Oscar’s work at first seems like a kind of performance, but there’s something that’s off about each little detour he takes. As each job goes by with a sense of visual wonder and an off-putting degenerate attitude, we grow to understand what his job is a little more, but that only leads to questions of a less concrete and more symbolic nature, the main root of them all being simply “Why?” Why spend an hour of your morning pretending to be a withering old lady, then head off to a performance capture studio, and then disgusting bust through crowds consuming flowers, hair, and fingers? As unreasonable as it is to bring logic into a film like this, nearly every moment going towards symbolic or metaphorical significance, as an audience we never leave reality behind.

Maybe it’s because all the conventional vehicles the film plays on stall the audience’s slow realization of the film as a work of silly fantasy. It’s no magical portal or wormhole that brings Oscar to his jobs, though there is an extraordinary quality to the limousine that drives him about his daily routines. He’s not the first superstar protagonist to go about the city by limousine in a surrealist film this year. Similarities to Robert Pattinson’s character in fellow Cannes premiere Cosmopolis certainly should not be discounted, but while Pattinson burns all the bridges of his power intentionally as a bid for freedom, Oscar has no qualms with his lot in life. Perhaps it’s simply that Oscar’s job is more fun to fulfill, and thus to watch. His motivations aren’t super-stellar pontifications on life, but of personal fulfillment.

With the job he has, living what seem to be many different lives throughout the course of a day, “personal” is a difficult thing to access. He is by turns beggar, freak, assassin, loving uncle, and plenty more, so the question of which of these is “the real Oscar” does come to mind more than twice. There are plenty reasonable answers to that, one being an enthralling presentation of musical kick that works as a fun intermission from the action. Oscar seems particularly stripped down in that moment, but also exuberantly railing as he swings about with accordion in hand. Perhaps the easiest assertion of “the real Oscar” is the man conversing with driver Celine while changing in the car. These moments display Oscar’s occasional spiral of desperation as he fulfills his own personality to the only one around to listen. “Quick driver! Follow that pigeon,” he jokes hysterically with Celine, mindful of how ridiculous the jobs they’re doing anyway are.

Maybe our most lasting glimpse of Oscar is when accompanied by somebody he appears to love, taking in a soaring musical number with Australian pop-star Kylie Minogue. Because let’s face, we’re only at home when we’re in song. However if any single moment of the film showed us “the real Oscar”, that drains all the other spectacular set-pieces of their importance, no matter how fun they are. The conclusion this viewer reaches is that each role he plays, no matter how silly or degrading, is still a full-hearted expression of this one man. Even when the rules have been established and you question the legitimacy of any of these acted-out scenes, the emotion, relationship, and motivation of the players still come through honestly. It eventually brings us back to the question of why exactly we are being shown this, or he is doing this. His answer? “The beauty of the act.”

Every moment of Holy Motors doubles as symbolic commentary for cinema, a medium rather than something finite. As the film stretches the limits of the artistic form structurally, narratively, and occasionally visually, it also critiques societal norms in cinema. There’s tucked criticism of kid-pandering silliness, performance capture obstruction of humanity, and even implicit jabs at sentimentalist fare like France’s eventual entry in the Oscar race, The Intouchables. Obviously those moments play as much giddier fare than the films they riff off of. Much as it could offer him roles that are less than convincing, Oscar takes each on with both hands, knowing there are gems amongst the tedium. “I miss the forests,” Oscar says in a moment begging for something natural while nearly every job is in the cultural lightning rod of the city. Just as Holy Motors embraces its medium with open arms, criticizing certain aspects of it while it excels as a preposterously wild ride, it still hears the legions shouting that “cinema is dead”. Leos Carax kindly responds “Fuck off!”

Bottom Line: As mystifying as it is preposterously entertaining, Holy Motors is a cinematic celebration as it is a boundless character study.

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  • Excellent review. This has been my most anticipated foreign movie of the year after Amour. Dying to watch it.

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