Holy Motors: A Cinematic Reverie That Enchants and Frustrates


Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Though I have long been tempted, I have never managed to catch a film by the French provocateur, Leos Carax (real name Alexandre Oscar Dupont). Both The Lovers on the Bridge (“Les amants du Pont-Neuf”) and Pola X have been on my radar since they came out, yet somehow I never got around to seeing them. Even though I did not love Holy Motors, there was enough in the movie that intrigued me that I would willingly sit down and watch another one of Carax’s works. It’s always nice to encounter an artist with innovative and unique ideas, and Carax is most definitely such an artist.

However, he also appears to be an artist who resists traditional plot narratives, and watching his latest film can be a challenging experience. If you can let yourself go, and just enjoy the beautiful images and imaginative scenes, you will emerge from Holy Motors as if from a strangely compelling dream that attracts and repels simultaneously. If you enjoy spending long hours interpreting meaning in opaque texts, you will love this film. If you like a clear three-act structure, you will hate it. If, like me, you are somewhere in between (depending on your mood), then you will be enchanted and frustrated, both.

The film opens majestically, with great wit, as the director himself plays a man magically transported from a hotel room to a cinema hall, where he gazes down upon an audience enraptured by moving images from the 1890s. Different dogs appear on the floor and slowly saunter down the aisle. We will never return to this scene again, though we will see brief glimpses of the same 1890s movies at a later point. What does this scene signify? That the director is launching us on a strange journey through his own version of film history? Perhaps.

We are suddenly transported to a new location, where a man named “Monsieur Oscar,” played by the physically and emotionally versatile Denis Lavant (a Carax regular), walks away from a palatial home surrounded by bodyguards, waves goodbye to his children, and steps into a white stretch limo driven by a woman named Céline. For the next 100 minutes or so, Monsieur Oscar is drive around Paris by Céline, where he assumes 7 different identities, all of which he inhabits through sometimes elaborate disguises. Is he an actor? Is he an angel? To what purpose does he bite off the fingers of a photographer’s assistant in one of his incarnations, before kidnapping the photographer’s model? I’m not sure, but I was fascinated. My favorite of the characters he plays is an early one, for which he dons a motion capture suit and enters a visual effects studio, where he performs stunts and eventually simulates sexual intercourse with a similarly attired woman (shown in the poster, above). If nothing else, the dance between glowing-dot-covered man and woman is so unearthly beautiful that it is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Still, by the end of the film, this does all begin to grow tiresome. True, one of the scenes features a singing Kylie Minogue – always a plus – who plays a female counterpart to Monsieur Oscar, but the constant shifting of narrative focus begins to feel as gimmicky as it is intriguing. When the film finally draws to a conclusion, after Céline drops Oscar off at his last assignment of the day – not to spoil the fun, but it involves chimpanzees! – we find ourselves in a garage filled with stretch limos. It turns out that they have all been busy conveying different strange actors around Paris all day. The name of this garage? Why, “Holy Motors,” bien sûr. 

I was never bored, and I spent 115 minutes fascinated by a series of great performances by an actor – Denis Lavant – whom I barely knew before this. I am sure that I could come up with an explanation of the meaning of the film. But would this explanation be meaningful to anyone one but me? Perhaps Carax is making a statement about how the private and personal cinematic experience intersect. We all come together to watch a work of art, yet each of us interprets in our way, and increasingly even that shared viewing experience of yore is diminishing in importance. Perhaps we are all trapped in our own stretch limos, forever doomed to re-enact our favorite scenes from our own lives for an audience of one – ourselves.

Or maybe the film is just a series of beautiful pictures that have no resonance beyond their brief projection. What do you think?

A final note – I find it interesting that a film such as this one, which pays homage to the cinema of the past, was shot on the RED camera in a purely digital format. New technologies, old ideas.


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