Review: Holy Motors (2012)


Director: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 appointments. This film is irresistibly outrageous, chillingly elusive, and strangely beautiful. Like no other film I’ve yet seen, it is the closest cinematic equivalent to dreaming– it is an often inexplicable, multi-layered experience filled with complexity, mystery and surreal visual splendor and a subconscious sense that there are symbols and messages, which you can only really start to work through after you first wade through the trance-like film. It is, therefore, a truly powerful and unique film experience– one that shakes you out of your complacency but somehow still takes you for one hell of a ride.

First, let me just say that I wasn’t sure initially how or in what capacity to write about this film, since it was released two years ago this fall (therefore this isn’t a review of a new film so much as perhaps a recent classic) and because it is a film that seems to deserve some greater exploration, so we’ll see what I can feasibly address and unpack in this space. Denis Lavant stars as Monsieur Oscar, a man whose nine “appointments” over the course of 24 hours dictate that he play that many, if not more, different characters.

He is transported via limo from one to the next and he spends the time in between locales and identities preparing for them in the backseat, which appropriately looks more like a dressing room on wheels (replete with masks, wigs, costumes and props). With each appointment, Lavant transforms himself completely, not merely in terms of aesthetics but also demeanor, posture, purpose– it is impressive, intriguing and almost scary to behold. Each segment flows fluidly from one to the next, even as different as they may seem in tone and even genre. But the film never feels like an anthology so much as a crazy journey through surreal Parisian locales and absurd disguises and various stories that feel real and related no matter how unrelated and unreal they actually are, and we never for one second know for sure just where we are going, and that is half the fun. 

The film is anything but typical, and its non-narrative, almost avant-garde sensibilities are reminiscent of a new French New Wave, or rather, Carax’s very singular stylistic tendencies that come across as a kind of mad man’s poetry. Each sequence has its own grotesque and lovely attributes in equal measure– even those that turn particularly violent or seem the most toned down. Every moment seems equally on the precipice of two extremes, or combines them in ways that seem unlikely if not totally impossible: beauty and horror.

As for specific scenes, this is not an easy film to understand and likewise, it is not an easy one to describe– one character Lavant portrays is a horrid, flower-eating, model-kidnapping troll so inhuman that it is hard to believe Lavant can so effortlessly become an innocently dying old man in a slow, poignant later scene. The whole film seems like it may be about performance itself, and about cinema at large– Carax is featured in the first scene of the film, as is an audience at a movie theater, and the film is effectively punctuated also by soundless scenes of cinema’s earliest experiments. The film as a whole then feels much like an experiment or an exercise; it feels like a wonderfully chaotic cacophony that somehow makes sense even for all of its nonsense, and it feels like it means something even if we cannot discern exactly what that thing is. And honestly, I feel like the film wouldn’t be quite as magical if the destination was more meaningful (or understandable) than the wonderfully unpredictable process by which we get there.   


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