Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Elise Lhomeau, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli, Léos Carax
US theatrical: 17 Oct 2012 (Limited release)
In a future world where people pay others to “perform” for them, Mr. Oscar (a brilliant Denis Lavant) is tired. As he rides around in his stretch limousine, his faithful driver Celine (Edit Scob) making sure he stays on schedule, he puts on various masks and make-up personas, the better to serve his client’s needs. Over the course of this very long day, he will “play” a grieving father, a CG stand-in for virtual porn, a diabolical criminal, a jaunty accordionist, and perhaps most significantly, a deformed fool who seduces a supermodel (Eva Mendes), taking her to a graveyard for some surreal, pseudo-sexual bonding. All the while, he sighs and struggles, his efforts becoming more and more wearisome, his tasks taking over and draining him of his true personality.
This is Holy Motors, the presumed name of the service, and the title of one of 2012’s most amazing, maddening films. Helmed by French eccentric Leos Carax and clearly created to cause a stir, this is future shock by way of Gilliam goofiness, a surreal statement about the roles we all play and the misguided masks we sometimes wear. From a melancholy musical number featuring ‘80s chanteuse Kylie Minogue to a deathbed scene that’s stunning in its rawness, Motors maneuvers through genres like a car through the crazy streets of Paris. Carax obviously wants to challenge the perception of what we go to the movies for, how we expect certain cliches to arrive and be embraced and/or thwarted. By moving between cinematic archetypes, but breaking the film’s fourth wall over and over again to build a brilliant fifth, he crafts a movie that’s part masterpiece, part meta performance art.
Within each section there are tiny tells, moments when you think you’re on to what Carax is creating. But then something like the supermodel sequence comes along and just baffles you. As Lavant puts on the oddball routine, as he walks a more or less comatose Mendes through a graveyard only to come to rest in a sewer like crypt, any concrete interpretation disappears. Instead, we are left with a simple ‘grace inside the gross’ dynamic which wears a bit thin. Luckily, the format of Holy Motors doesn’t allow for lingering, and we end up quickly turning to material that is more meaningful. Sure, we see the shout out to Beauty and the Beast, but the real world work, especially the scenes where Lavant is dealing with true tragedies, become all the more powerful and engaging.
The true star here is Carax. While Lavant is mesmerizing, and deserving of every accolade he is destined to receive, the director truly shines here, showing a genre knowledge that few in filmmaker truly have. From the very beginning of each segment, we see the various element of shared recognition - the father/daughter dynamic, the lover/lost passion play. But then Holy Motors does something wholly unique with these ideas. Since, again, we are used to the archetypes and cliches, since we instantly orient ourselves toward a cognitive reaction, we assume what will happen. Yet we have also been on “the inside,” so to speak, a participation in the preparation before. Soon, the artificiality of it all starts to sink in, and we stand outside the sequence.
If it all sounds very post-post modern…well, it is. Holy Motors may be trying to say something about the collective human experience (more on that in a moment), but at its heart, it’s a video junkie’s jaunt through the last 60 years of cinema. It’s like Quentin Tarantino without the desire for dialogue or a single narrative thread. It’s Tim Burton given over to fever dream fits. It’s David Lynch obsessed with technology, or perhaps more accurately, Jacque Tati without the Chaplin/Keaton complex. Just as fellow Frenchman Jean–Pierre Jeunet has done in movies like Micmacs and Delicatessen, there’s a warped internal logic to what happens here, a fate as funny business premise that predicates everything that comes before and after. Like good science fiction - and Holy Motors could potentially fall into that category - this movie makes up its own eccentric rules, and then never fails to live by them.
Oh course, there are many ways to interpret this material. The most obvious, as stated before, is a Technicolor tone poem to the artform Carax loves best. Another way is to argue that Mr. Oscar is God, and that he is stepping into the various roles within the human race as a means of illustrating the diversity of life. Again, you could remove the religious angle and recognize that we all wear masks in our everyday existence. We swing wildly from co-worker to parent, partner to participant. In Lavant’s tired eyes, we see it all - the delight and the defeat, the determination and the depression. Clearly, working for Holy Motors the company is beyond difficult. You clearly get paid well, but at what personal cost? Even more so, the business clearly claims no purpose other than allowing others to act out what they want. Of course, when the cars themselves start communicating…
The end result is a joy ride through the ridiculous, a movie whose meaning may be lost in the manner in which it’s approached. Carax can claim something more complicated, but the truth remains that this is a fascinating film experience where you never quite know what’s coming next, and feel nothing but fulfilled when the eventual entertainment reveal arrives. Shifts in tone and temperament be damned - no celebration of film can be staid or standardized. For over 100 years, celluloid has become the medium of choice for many important artists. From narrative to novel visuals, the art of life’s imitation finds few more forceful outlets. Holy Motors, in fact, literally defines said purpose. It not only copies our daily trials and tribulations, it comments on them. What it has to say makes it not only one of 2012’s Best, but one of the best films of its kind, ever. Of course, figuring out what that is may require another century of cinematic consideration.