The experience of watching Holy Motors is akin to seeing your strangest, wildest dreams materialize onscreen. Its very purpose seems to be to remind us that the images captured on celluloid where once called “the stuff dreams are made of”, because no other art medium could capture images in movement in the same way our subconscious does. The movie opens with the striking footage of a naked man running. This black and white footage was shot around the time when film was invented and is suddenly cut by the image of an audience sitting in a movie theater. For a second or two, we think of this as our reflection, we are an audience watching an audience watching an audience.
This haunting image is suddenly cut and a sleeping man appears onscreen. He wakes up, walks towards his room’s walls, proceeds to tear them and enters the movie theater we saw seconds before. This image is then followed by that of a little girl looking out a window as a man—who we can assume is her father—leaves for work. In a matter of less than six minutes, director Leos Carax has filled us with enough information for us to be both completely overwhelmed by what we’ve just seen, but also to want to know where all of this is going.
Soon we learn this man’s name, as his driver (Edith Scob) refers to him as Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant). This man’s strange line of work consists on him putting on different hair and makeup and acting out different scenes all over Paris. He becomes a homeless woman, a dying man, a dead man, a worried father, a scorned lover and many other characters, as we sit there in complete awe not knowing what to expect next. To say that what follows during the next two hours is something that escapes the traditional way in which we see movies would be a grave understatement, for Holy Motors is perhaps the most groundbreaking, cinematic experience of the last two decades.
Carax has put such effort into every scene, that even if they seem to have been inspired by hallucinogens, they all have a controlled beauty to them. For example, during the opening scenes, the director alludes to the nature of dreams and their incomprehensibility, but he’s also speaking of what will be the movie’s major theme, which is nothing else than the movies themselves. Holy Motors is a poem to the dying medium of celluloid, but like the greatest eulogies, it also fills the message with undeniable hope. Scene after scene, using the extraordinary Lavant as a surrogate for both the craft of acting and the human race itself, Carax reminds us about the rustic charms of celluloid and doing things the old way.
However, he is never one to give up and perhaps it’s not accidental that one of the most stunning scenes in the movie has Mr. Oscar covered in motion capture sensors having simulated sex with an actress. In this particular scene Carax becomes the ultimate humanist, devoted to the wonders of the human body, but he’s also a satirist for when we see the resulting animation on a smaller screen, we are left disgusted, feeling like we have been robbed.
Holy Motors eventually becomes a perfect chronology of how movies came to be, beginning with silent cinema, going to colorful melodramas and musicals and finishing with a special kind of science fiction, all of which cover the many aspects of cinema since its very creation. In a way, it can be a very scholarly movie, given that it throws endless references that will feel completely orgasmic to cinephiles, but will pass unnoticed by more casual viewers. What the movie contains, amidst its seemingly vague mindfuckery, is an energy that never lets you go. Watching the movie can also be compared to the experience of being exhilarated by listening to music for the first time.
What results fantastic is to end the movie with the realization that even if cars occupy a lot of the running time, the motors mentioned in the title aren’t the ones in Mr. Oscar’s limousine, but the engines that propel the camera to capture life around it. In the film’s most poignant scene, Australian pop star Kylie Minogue appears channeling Jean Seberg, Catherine Deneuve and herself (the word ‘meta’ seems invented to describe this movie) and as she and Mr. Oscar reminisce about something that might’ve not even happened, she bursts into song. “Who were we, who were we, when we were, who we were?” she asks, lifting our hearts without us ever understanding the magic behind it. Something the movies have always excelled at.
Holy Motors is presented in a magnificent 1080 transfer in 1.85:1.It should be ironic that a movie as obsessed with celluloid as this was actually filmed using the Red digital camera and it results even more interesting to see how Caraz is never too keen on making his movie look like it wasn’t. The colors are vibrant despite some shadowy moments here and there and the movie looks as beautiful as when projected in movie theaters.
Bonus features are limited but do a good job of being informative and preserving the movie’s magic. Drive-In: the Making of Holy Motors is an hour long documentary that goes behind the scenes without being intrusive. An interview with the radiant Minogue in which she reveals she knew nothing about Carax, makes one feel her small turn in the movie was even more brilliant than it had any right to be. Rounding up the set are two trailers.
Holy Motors is probably the most important movie that came out in 2012 in terms of inventiveness and love for the medium. Here’s hoping this superb Blu-ray release finds a home with many cinephiles who’ve yet to enjoy this film’s endless pleasures.