Film Reviews

Holy Motors Leos Carax

Rating - 8/10

The joy in watching Leos Carax's head trip, Holy Motors, is attempting to precisely define its premise and motivations through various aesthetics or genre terminology in its nine "appointments" in which the film deconstructs cinema.  Through the versatility of its chameleonic actor, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), it achieves a tone that simultaneously mocks and celebrates itself, commentating on the loss of identity and attention span in the modern world, critiquing digitization of film and the disappearance of analog methods, or even satirizing spectatorship (in an interlude where Oscar watches reality as entertainment as one would watch television).  Admirably, Holy Motors often conveys any serious-mindedness with the rollicking rhythm of an animated feature or anthology film that is capably fitted with a sort of in-between narrative or at least the illusion of one.

The preliminary scene is the gateway to its surrealist pleasures; a nameless man (the director himself, Carax) inserts his middle finger (which doubles as a socket wrench) into an invisible door within wooded wallpaper that opens into a theatre of sleeping souls.  The film fluidly cuts to a short scene of domesticity where young girls say goodbye to their father in business attire, Monsieur Oscar, who enters a limousine with his driver, Céline (Édith Scob), and makes a phone call to someone named Serge about bodyguards and firearms.  At this point, it's not outlandish to assume the film will become a more dreamlike version of Don DeLillo's novel, Cosmopolis.  (Coincidentally, David Cronenberg adapted it to film just a short time before Holy Motors' release).  While Oscar keeps a series of appointments like asset manager Eric Packer in Cosmopolis, it slowly becomes evident that this film will not be concerning itself with highfalutin talk of stock markets and capitalism but rather the shifting language and roles of cinema and art.

In his first appointment during the day, Oscar dons a disguise of a hobbled gypsy beggar on the streets of Paris near the Seine River.  His woeful voiceover fills the soundtrack ("nobody loves me nowhere"); just a minute later, as if he tires of the role or intentionally wishes to break audiences' developing emotional investment, Oscar removes his costume back in the limousine and suits up in black spandex for one of the film's weirdest and most memorable appointments of acrobatic motion capture.  First, he participates in a series of solo exercises, and then he mingles with a lanky female contortionist (Zlata) in slow-motion.  The camera pans to show the startling animation of two interlocking serpent creatures that replaces their human bodies in a moment that possesses mesmeric sexuality while it proposes a new direction for cinema itself.  Is there a new-found intimacy in animation?

A farcical but shocking assassin duel follows where Oscar basically switches faces with himself (or his doppelganger) in an alley; he stumbles back into the limousine to find a mysterious acquaintance, a scarred man in sunglasses (Michel Piccoli), who evaluates his performances during these appointments.  It's here Carax most overtly (if still enigmatically) references the changing cinematic landscape.  The man suggests that Oscar's loss of commitment to his work directly parallels the disappearance of celluloid.  It would seem this signifies a certain death of traditional cinema but, perhaps, life itself is cinema with the implication that cameras are now unseen.  The two then briefly, almost humorously, trade ideas on Philip K. Dick-like notions of paranoia of unknown surveillance but also debate the fact that maybe no one is watching at all.  Oscar decides to carry on with his initial reasoning for his impersonations, "the beauty of the act," despite the distinct possibility that there is no "beholder" or distinguishing line.  He is a performance artist strictly for the sake of art.

Continuing with another appointment in a hotel room, the melancholic reunion mirrors one in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, edging the film towards a denouement with a somber tone and environmental darkness.  Even still, Carax attempts to subvert expectations by juxtaposing an imminent sense of doom with a romantic, nostalgic encounter that hinges on the film's sense of history or continuing narrative.  Another chameleonic colleague, Jean (pop vocalist Kylie Minogue), nearly collides with Oscar's limousine.  After spoken greetings and a walk through the abandoned La Samaritaine department store, she seamlessly segues into a meditative musical number called "Who Were We?" about her and Oscar's past.  Carax has described this meeting as one between ghosts, as if the two have died (which is true, in a sense, based on some of the fates of Oscar's personae).  This scene and the penultimate one featuring Céline that references Georges Franju's film, Eyes Without a Face, creep towards psychological and literal horror- that is, until Céline disappears from the screen, leaving a fleet of limousines to murmur their inadequacies to one another in a gesture of animated mimicry (see: Pixar's Cars).

Since it's been reported that Carax has synthesized various ideas for other feature-length films in Holy Motors, audiences may look at it as a bemused but clever cleansing act.  It's the filmic equivalent to Italo Calvino's meta-novel, If on a winter's night a traveler, which contains several novels within its own cover, reveling in a self-aware identity crisis while also examining and transforming the possibilities of its medium.  Chris Wisniewski complements Holy Motors' self-perpetuating questions by writing of the film's non-conclusion in his stellar Reverse Shot review: "Maybe there is no real world.  Maybe everyone is always wearing a mask of one kind or another, and maybe everyone is both actor and audience, playing roles in which others have cast them."  Maybe, as Carax briefly discussed at the 50th New York Film Festival, the film is about "cinema reinventing itself to find that power (of God) again" like great artists before him.