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'Holy Motors': Life as Theater, Antic, Brilliant, and Sometimes, Academic

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Friday, Oct 19, 2012
by Elena Razlogova
For all the mechanisms at work in Holy Motors, much like a carousel, the film delivers a ride that's always engaging and often thrilling.

Holy Motors is Léos Carax’s first feature film since 1999’s Pola X. But if the filmmaker takes his time between such adventures, his storytelling is more inclined to speed, or, more precisely, an energy that emulates speed, propulsive, provocative, and irresistible.
The new movie—opening in selected US theaters on 17 October—is less a chronological narrative than series of vivid performances, fantastic and mesmeric. Monsieur Oscar (played by Carax’s frequent collaborator Denis Lavant) travels in his limousine from one “appointment” to another, performing roles, each one more outré than the other: he’s an old beggar woman one moment and a weird goblin (Merde, from Carax’s short in Tokyo!) the next. At times Céline (Édith Scob) seems to be his driver and secretary, but at times she, too, plays parts in his performances. Twice he appears mortally wounded after failed attempts to assassinate his own double in different guises. When his limo crashes into another car, he meets a colleague (Kylie Minogue), also on her way to an appointment. She bursts into song in the middle of their conversation. A manager-like person (Michel Piccoli) appears at one point to check on Mr. Oscar, noting that the actor seems tired of his craft. Mr. Oscar, it turns out, has been performing for a long time, since the days when cameras were big and visible. Now, it’s hard to see the cameras, and so, hard to know whether anyone is recording or even seeing him.

Holy Motors’ basic philosophical point, that “life is theater,” may be a bit too obvious. And other aspects of the film might seem a bit too academic. Citations from other movies abound, including Carax’s own and those of his cast: Scob at one point dons a mask that might be from Eyes without a Face, still a startling image. As these allusions accumulate, what might have been clues become irrelevant by the next episode.

But for all the mechanisms at work, much like a carousel, the film delivers a ride that’s always engaging and often thrilling. The visual invention is especially compelling, as when Mr. Oscar performs elaborate moves for motion capture, his bodysuit pocked with light, or when a goblin in green whisks a stunning model in a golden dress (Eva Mendez) from a photo shoot. As he runs with her through a cemetery, each gravestone is carved with a URL and a plea to “Visit my website.” It’s the past receding, the present unfolding, the future in another dimension, dark and brilliant and refreshingly perplexing.

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