No, I don’t know what it is, either. But I do know that it’s brilliant.
Leos Carax’s unclassifiable Holy Motors is about a great many things, the death of cinema being first and foremost on its mind. This is a topic that folks above my pay grade have weighed in upon with some lengthy essays quite recently, as it seems prolonged exposure to any single art form for too long leads to writing tired, navel-gazing Sunday thumbsucker obituaries that only other film critics read.
Carax begins by pining for those good old days with one of many artful tableaux, and then explodes the whole damn structure. Holy Motors is confounding and audacious. Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend for the digital era, both exuberant and melancholy, it’s a movie about an allegedly dying art form that is thrillingly alive.
A little in the way of explanation: The chameleonic Denis Lavant stars as Monsieur Oscar, traveling from place to place in the back of a white stretch limo, donning some shockingly good prosthetic makeup as he moves from “appointment” to “appointment”–dropping in for brief scenes as different characters in various movies belonging to wildly disparate genres.
Later on, there will be some discussion with an agent, as Oscar laments the shrinking of the cameras and digital diaspora. Nothing is like it used to be.
So, what are we seeing: kamikaze reality show art? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure it even matters. What makes Holy Motors such an invigorating movie experience is that Oscar keeps showing up in one scene after another, and their context is beside the point, the artifice often acknowledged out loud.
I think the actual point is the rush of great storytelling, the way we’re seduced and drawn into each single set-piece by nothing more than Lavant’s astonishing gallery of faces and Carax’s directorial braggadocio. It’s pure cinema, dropping all the baggage and designed with no other end than to provoke, titillate and disturb. And not always in that order.
What to say about a sequence in which Lavant (reprising his Mr. Merde character from Carax’s contribution to the omnibus film Tokyo!) emerges from a sewer as a muttering, Wonka-clad homeless man and seduces Eva Mendes’ Eurotrash supermodel away from a photo shoot while trying to ignore his raging hard-on?
Or how about a long, quiet dialogue-driven scene in which Lavant’s sad-sack driver must face up to the disappointment of his teenage daughter’s constant lies? There’s also a gorgeous bit of business with Kylie Minogue as a maybe-actress-maybe-airline-stewardess belting out a farewell ballad to her long-lost love. This scene, like so many others, remains stubbornly unresolved.
Holy Motors does not take place on any prescribed plane where one thing leads to another. It is a collection of moments, often the worst, most final endings of relationships, and then it invariably rolls along to the next stop.
Smarter folks than I have done a fair job parsing this movie’s dense thicket of references; I’ve been informed one scene quotes a Thomas Hardy book almost verbatim, and the allusions to Carax’s previous work and commercially disastrous film career abound. But much like those early Godard movies from which Holy Motors takes its cues, the smarty-pants shout-outs are just icing on the cake. Trust me, it’s entirely possible to have an intense, emotional response to this movie without knowing what the hell is going on most of the time.
Not sure if I even have the words for a mid-movie musical interlude that takes place in a single, unbroken shot. A fiery, almost possessed Lavant marches forward whaling on an accordion, and gradually the background becomes populated with similarly furious musicians working the same stomp beat. Corners are turned, and the crowd fills in with drums, bass and an electric guitar. The song mushrooms into a defiant anthem, and then they’re all gone just as quickly as they arrived. Every movie needs an intermission like this one.
Slyly answering Cosmopolis’ question as to where all these limousines go at the end of the day, Holy Motors ends on a hilarious prank that once again is infused with a peculiar sadness.
Cinema is dead. Long live cinema.
Remembering Roger Ebert