Review: Holy Motors

One of the many memorable scenes from Leos Carax’s erratic, eccentric tribute to film, “Holy Motors.”

About twenty minutes into my screening of “Holy Motors,” a young couple sitting behind me, probably in their mid-20s, got up and left the theater. It’s been years since I saw a walk-out, and this was definitely the first I’ve ever seen at this particular cinema – the kind of people who frequent non-profit indie theaters are generally not your squeamish mainstream movie-goer. If this had been just about any other film, I would’ve understood the impulse, though – we had, after all, just witnessed our protagonist Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) bite off a woman’s fingers, lick Eva Mendes’ armpit and then strip naked, with no attempt on the filmmaker’s part to hide Mr. Lavant’s, *ahem*, enthusiasm. I would certainly understand how that sequence could be giving some viewers way more than they bargained for.

But this couple’s decision ultimately didn’t make any sense to me for two reasons. First, “Holy Motors” was made by Leos Carax (the unpronounceable pseudonym of Alex Oscar Dupont), a notorious enfant terrible of French cinema – if you go to one of his films, you’d better be prepared for the crazy. But second and more importantly, walking out on “Holy Motors” defies the entire structural logic of the film. If there’s something you don’t like in this movie, and rest assured there will be, just be patient and wait it out – in five minutes you’ll be getting a completely new movie anyway.

To explain: when we are first introduced to Monsieur Oscar, he appears to be a wealthy businessman, emerging early in the morning from his stately and evocatively nautical home. He climbs into a waiting limousine, driven by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob), and sets out on his eccentric odyssey through the streets of Paris. This Wall Street executive-type Oscar is told he has a series of appointments to meet – but when he emerges from the limo for the first of these engagements, Oscar has transformed into a stooped, haggard old beggar woman, mumbling and humbly seeking alms on the Pont Neuf.

As the film continues, it becomes clear that Oscar will step into a new role at each new appointment, and with him the entire film will often abruptly shift gears from one genre to another. At one point Lavant becomes a dour, mustachioed gangster in a scene straight out of some crime thriller – in the next he’s a mournful lover, prowling the abandoned interior of Paris’ legendary Samaritaine department store for an affecting musical sequence with Kylie Minogue. While the aforementioned gross-out portion could be a reference to recent torture porn horror films, it actually plays more like an old monster movie, something like “King Kong” or “Godzilla.”

If this all sounds rather inscrutable, it is that – there are never any clear explanations for exactly what Monsieur Oscar’s profession is, although there are several exchanges (including a brief scene with the masterful Michel Piccoli) that strongly hint that he is some sort of actor. Oscar laments the disappearance of “the cameras,” and from there we can assume that Carax, like so many other filmmakers these days, is deeply concerned with the current state of cinema and the steady transition of film to the digital. “Holy Motors” could be read as a cinephile’s fever dream – Carax tosses out so many cinematic allusions and homages, from his own past work to Muybridge, Franju, Pixar (perhaps) and everyone in between, roving over the history of film like he’s just encountered it for the first time.

At many points “Holy Motors” feels intentionally familiar, with shots and techniques that have clearly been lifted from elsewhere. But Carax assembles them with such renewed enthusiasm and vigor, you can see some of the same spiritual spark that guided the early filmmakers of the 1920s, who desperately lashed out in every direction as they sought out the limitations of the young medium. Indeed, the film actually opens with a dreamy sequence in which a man (Carax himself) awakes in a hotel room, discovers a secret door, and emerges into the balcony of a movie theater playing King Vidor’s “The Crowd.” It’s a fairly clear reference to the beginning of Dziga Vertov’s experimental 1926 film “Man with a Movie Camera,” but unlike Vertov’s eager audience of budding Soviets-in-the-making, this contemporary crowd is fast asleep.

Read into the specific implications of these images as you will. Carax’s film is destined to become a favorite of college professors across the globe, a delirious exploration of the capabilities of cinema on the brink of the digital age (just to add to the meta-commentary, Carax shot on digital for the first time ever – but only for budgetary reasons). I would say it’s a “meditation on” those capabilities but that would both undersell the film’s tremendous energy and imply a depth of profundity that may not even exist. It’s like Carax is throwing everything at the wall, not to see what sticks, but just because he likes throwing things.

This sort of pure cinema reminded me of a moment at the end of Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” where a character who may or may not have just committed suicide is suddenly seen dancing frantically and desperately by himself in a nightclub, as the credits start to roll. It’s probably not a coincidence that the character in Denis’ film is also played by Denis Lavant. The veteran French actor is a jumble of paradoxes, with his incredibly unique, lumpy face and chameleon ability to transform his personality. This is an actor’s showcase if ever there was one, and Lavant provides an astounding performance. As his loyal assistant, Edith Scob doesn’t have much to do, but she has that great dignified air that only older French women have (see: Catherine Deneuve), and gets to have some fun in a riff on her most famous performance, in 1960’s “Eyes Without a Face.”

I can’t recommend “Holy Motors” for all viewers, but I can hope that this review can serve as a warning of sorts. This sort of film is either going to appeal or it’s not, and the best we can do is avoid any more walk-outs. If you do find yourself in a screening and unsure of what you’re doing there, though, just be patient: to borrow from a completely unrelated source, it gets better.

Now playing in art-house theaters.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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