'Holy Motors' Is the Most Inventive Movie of the Last Two Decades

Holy Motors is a poem to the dying medium of celluloid, but like the greatest eulogies, it also fills the message with undeniable hope.

Holy Motors

Director: Leos Carax
Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue
Distributor: Indomina
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-02-25

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.