Written and Directed by Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, and Kyle Minogue
MPAA: Unrated – Contains some Violent Images, Graphic Sexuality/Nudity, and Brief Language]
Earlier this year, film pundits Andrew O’Heir and David Denby wrote some articles bringing up “The Death of Cinema”, stating that the majority of today’s movies are horrendous and that the “culture of film” itself was dying. There are plenty of articles I’ve read that perfectly articulated why these two opinions were mostly, to put it bluntly, wrong in every aspect, but perhaps the biggest case for cinema being alive now more than ever, a film I sincerely wish O’Heir and Denby had seen before writing their indulgent, solipsistic articles, is Holy Motors: A film that proves them wrong in just about every way imaginable.
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is the single best movie of 2012. I’m not even gonna work my way around it with a typical introduction like I usually do in these reviews. It just simply is the best movie I’ve seen this entire year and one of the very best of this whole decade. It’s a fleeting odyssey into the world of cinema that’s fun, surreal, disturbing, and ultimately, powerful, moving, audacious, gorgeous, breathtaking, and unlike anything else ever made. It’s this year’s The Tree of Life. It’s a spellbinding film that can only be described as “transcendent”. The kind of audacity that the movies were made for.
There have been numerous films that I would say were “unlike anything else ever made” that were released this year. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas come to mind immediately, but they still functioned on a rational, comprehensive level somewhere beneath their wildly original conceits. Holy Motors, however, has a language all to its own, and is almost impossible to describe in words when it works on such an abstract, subconscious level. But I will do my best to interpret what the movie is about.
Holy Motors takes place within the world of cinema; kinda like what this year’s Wreck-It Ralph did with video games, but in a much more abstract, dream-like fashion. The film opens with an introduction lifted straight out of an E.T.A. Hoffman story: A character credited only as Le Dormeur (Played by writer/director Leos Carax himself) is sitting in his apartment complex when he discovers a door hidden in his wall (which is painted to look like a deep forest, natch). He opens the secret passage using a cylindrical key that grows out of his middle finger (It’s surrealist cinema, just roll with it) and steps inside to find a theater in which all of the audience members are asleep. As they slumber through the film that’s playing in front of them, a small child and two dogs walk up and down the aisles. Le Dormeur peers into the screen.
Elsewhere, a man named Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) steps into a limousine and removes his hair and his face. In his limousine is a complete dressing room (The inside of the limo is apparently much bigger than the outside), and he slathers on make-up to transform into something else. He steps out of the limo as an old beggar and stands in the street for a while asking for money, then steps back into the limo to make another transformation. His next “role” is as a motion-capture performer for what is either a video game or a disturbingly adult CG animated movie. Then, he sheds his skin once again for another “appointment” as he and his chauffeur (Edith Scob, from Eyes Without a Face) ride into the streets of Paris. This is the life of Monsieur Oscar. He always lives in the shoes of another character, another life, all day, every day. He has no real family, and even his own individuality is blurred in the scuffle of his numerous roles. And yet, he remains devoted to his unusual line of work, all for “the beauty of the act”.
Holy Motors can be seen as another one of those “it means whatever you want it to mean” art pieces, but even I have trouble believing that when its central message is so clear and it says it with such fancy, such originality and soulfulness, that I find it hard to interpret any other way. It takes place in a world where cinema and life are one and the same. Cinema is life and life is cinema. Monsieur Oscar doesn’t just act in his various roles. He lives in them, sometimes even dies in them. He experiences all of the pains and joys of life through his myriad roles. The question is whether or not his roles are a true reflection or even a substitute for life itself. Holy Motors really leans towards the “yes” category.
But there are countless more hidden meanings lurking in the film: The digitization of filmmaking, the young overshadowing the old ways of thinking, the coping of death and the grief that comes with it, etc. But the most moving subtext the film has to offer for academic viewers is how it relates to Leos Carax’s life itself. Apparently, before Holy Motors, Carax was preparing for a completely different film when the love of his life, and mother of his child, died from what appeared to be suicide. Carax then went into a long hiatus from filmmaking. His last feature-length film was Pola X, which was released all the way back in 1999. He did a short film in 2008 for the anthology film Tokyo! (Which utilized another talented French director, Michel Gondry), but it still didn’t satiate French film-geeks eager for a real follow-up. Now, with Holy Motors, his first feature-length effort since 1999, he has seemingly employed that very grief that was haunting him into his work.
This is especially evidence in one tragic, utterly heart-breaking scene which, without giving any spoilery context, involves a woman jumping off a building. Here’s the thing: I honestly had no idea about Leos Carax before this movie. This was the first movie of his I was seeing and I had no idea what his life-story was. And yet that scene and others like it really struck a chord with me. I felt the weight of those moments because Carax puts every ounce of himself onto the screen, and then utilizes cinema to its maximum potential. Then, when I finally looked up the backstory of Carax, I was moved even more. No matter what this movie means, it means the most to Carax himself. The fact that it does this without feeling indulgent and letting the audience in on this emotion while also being wildly surreal and resistant to the boundaries of storytelling is an astounding feat in and of itself.
This isn’t to say that Holy Motors is a drama. It’s so many things at once that it’s strictly genre-less. There are elements of comedy, musical, and horror tangled up with the more fervent dramatic material, all of which is wrapped in a tightly wound thread of surrealism. Even if you don’t get the movie, it’s simply impossible to be bored by its sheer audaciousness as it reinvents itself with each little “vignette”. So while Holy Motors is best appreciated on an artistic level, it’s also worth noting that a lot of it is fun as hell when it isn’t being emotionally devastating. We get to see Monsieur Oscar dive headfirst into each role with reckless abandon, and the fun thing is that each role is distinctly its own, sometimes intensely bizarre, all times wildly different from the previous one. One portion of the film has him as a goblin-like man who eats flowers and bites people’s fingers off. Another has him leading a band while playing an accordion. And as mentioned before, there’s a scene with him performing motion-capture for an unseen director in a soundstage. He performs mid-air kung-fu, shoots machine guns while running on a treadmill, and even has weird, alien sex with another motion-capture actress.
The movie constantly brings something new to the table in each scene, and what makes this dynamic structure work so well is the sheer talent of Denis Lavant, who completely disappears into each role in one of the best performances of the entire year. As much as I loved each of the performances in Cloud Atlas, another movie containing multiple roles for each of their actors, it purposefully clued the audience in on who each actor was in order to drive its connective themes; which was all well and good for the movie, but sometimes didn’t allow the actors to show their true range. Lavant, on the other hand, is completely unrecognizable in every role he immerses himself into. At no point is there a hint that these various characters are being played by the same person, not only thanks to some terrific make-up work, but because of how Lavant effortlessly changes mannerisms, expressions, movement, and voices in subtle and nuanced ways. It’s the kind of performance you see only once in a blue moon, and something to behold.
Yet the movie never feels like it’s being upstaged by Lavant’s talent. Everything comes together in a perfect, cohesive, unified whole. Performance, style, metaphor, visuals, dialogue, music, and cinematography all merge into this feast of the imagination. Holy Motors is simply put, a film that needs to be experienced by any serious movie fan. I can’t promise that it’s for everyone, but those looking for something wholly original, deeply felt, and totally unafraid to be completely, utterly strange, it simply cannot be missed.
Final Verdict: An overwhelming masterpiece that engages the senses, challenges the intellect, and pulls the heartstrings, all while inviting viewers into a world that’s never been experienced before. Holy Motors is a love-letter to the enduring and eternal power of the cinema, a celebration of the creative impulse, a joyous, reaffirming outlook on art and life as part of the whole in something larger than all of us, and a profound meditation on the purposes of each of our lives. See it, and see something that is unlike anything else ever created. My favorite film of 2012 thus far, and likely to not be topped by anything else this year.
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See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and catch up on every other Leos Carax I haven’t yet seen. Dude deserves hype. Bye!