Published on September 6th, 2016 | by Clint Davis
Holy Motors  — movie review
Summary: Absurd, challenging and totally unique — 'Holy Motors' is an exciting film to follow but can be frustrating to try and keep up with. If you complain that all movies follow a formula, give this one a watch.
About 400 years after William Shakespeare wrote that “All the world’s a stage,” French movie director Leos Carax took that immortal phrase to a whole other level.
Carax’s 2012 film Holy Motors is honestly unlike anything I’ve seen on a screen of any size. From its opening scene, this film challenges the audience to think of themselves as viewers, removed from the action and constantly reminding themselves that the actions they are seeing were staged and scripted. This introduction is necessary because if you try to take Holy Motors as a slice of real life, your head is liable to split in two before the first half-hour has passed.
The bulk of the film follows a man named Oscar — played by the intense French actor Denis Lavant — as he carries out a typical day of work. But what passes for a typical day in Oscar’s career would likely equate to the single most physically and emotionally exhausting day in any person’s life, as you and I know it.
From early in the morning to well after midnight, Oscar is driven in a white, stretch limousine around Paris, as he carries out a series of nine “appointments.” Each appointment requires Oscar to assume a different character and interact with people in varying ways. He dons prosthetic stage makeup, fake beards, wigs and a wide array of costumes during his night at work. He does all the makeup himself with the aid of a built-in mirror in the back of the limo, which resembles the kind you’d see in the dressing room of a Broadway theater.
Oscar’s characters and actions are myriad. At one appointment, he plays an old woman begging for change with a small cup on a busy Paris street. In another, he plays an Asian gangster who must fatally stab a man to whom he looks nearly identical. In yet another, he’s the middle-aged father of an awkward teenage girl — picking her up from a party in his beat-down compact car and wearing all the disappointment of suburbia on his bitter face.
We get no clues as to why Oscar is donning these costumes and carrying out these unrelated and sometimes heinous acts until about an hour into Holy Motors. At this point, Carax — who also wrote the screenplay — takes a bit of pity on the audience and gives some overt exposition. A mysterious man with a large liver spot on his face is suddenly sitting in the back of the limo with Oscar.
The man — played by Michel Piccoli — tells Oscar he looks “tired” and he asks what makes him “carry on” doing this line of work, to which Oscar replies, “The beauty of the act.” The man apparently has no notion of what “beauty” means, only being able to reference the cliche that it’s “in the eye of the beholder.” Oscar then admits that he misses the days when he could actually see the cameras, complaining that they are now too small to be seen by the naked eye.
OK, so it’s not much exposition, but compared to the abstract style of the rest of the movie, this is Carax’s version of hitting the audience over the head with an exposition hammer. Oscar is clearly some kind of actor, whose appointments are filmed by unseen cameras for an unseen audience. This also explains how he is able to apparently violently die multiple times in the course of the day. Once he is shot to death on a crowded sidewalk and another time he is stabbed in the throat; both times he bleeds heavily but makes it back to his limo, where he appears to have no injuries.
Holy Motors is a total mind fuck but it’s not just weird and challenging for the sake of being weird and challenging. There’s a story here about the fleeting natures of existence and usefulness as they relate to people, technology and culture.
Just as the cameras keep shrinking, the role of Oscar as an actor may be losing its value. Oscar is a human and as we see in the film, he’s late for some of his appointments because of pacing issues or human distractions. As the world’s technology continues to improve, couldn’t he easily be replaced by an animatronic performer or a digitally animated one? In one memorable scene, we see Oscar wear a motion-capture suit and have both a simulated fight and simulated sex with another actor in a similar suit — their actions are translated onto a nearby screen as a pair of cartoon monsters who are copulating.
And it’s not only Oscar who must worry about being replaced by a newer model, it turns out the iconic white limo in which he rides also has consciousness and is terrified to end up in the “junkyard,” as the fantastic closing scene of Holy Motors reveals. If the cars are able to think, feel and communicate with one another, then the other pieces of technology in this world must be able to as well. It brings to mind the thought of thousands of outdated video cameras sitting on a garbage heap somewhere, crying to one another before they are shoveled into the incinerator.
Carax also seems to offer a critique of entertainment and the short attention spans of modern audiences. The scenes in which Oscar acts cover a wide variety of traditional genres of scripted performance.
We get melodrama when Oscar plays an old man on his death bed as he and his weeping niece share a final conversation about the end of life (this scene specifically looked like one you’d see in a typical Academy Award-nominated drama). We get romance in a scene with a fellow actor — played by singer Kylie Minogue — who breaks into a melancholy musical number, which is the type of thing that only happens onscreen. We get monster horror when Oscar dresses like a nightmarish Leprechaun, bites a woman’s finger off and kidnaps a gorgeous model played by Eva Mendes. Carax even pokes fun at traditional sitcom absurdity when Oscar plays a man who comes home from a long day at work to be greeted by his wife and daughters, who happen to be chimps.
Each scene lasts only 10 to 15 minutes at most, with Oscar moving onto his next appointment. The brief time for which he occupies each character shows the minuscule attention span with which his audience must be capable of mustering. He’s not playing out epic films or Shakespearean theatre, he’s acting in YouTube-length vignettes.
In Holy Motors, Carax makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and scripted drama. It’s best to assume everything that takes place outside the limo — which is a place of relaxation and relative comfort — is not real. It’s not even clear if the Paris we see outside the car’s windows is real or simply an elaborate set, either animated or practically built. As Oscar rides around the city, he doesn’t look out the limo’s wide windows to view the scenery, instead he looks at it through a flip-down LED screen that shows the Paris streets sometimes in stunning clarity and other times in a grainy, green view that resembles Neo’s vision of The Matrix as nothing more than a series of coding built from numbers and letters.
Every actor in Holy Motors pulls their weight but the film is led by Lavant, who is in nearly every scene. I wouldn’t call Lavant’s performance — or this movie, for that matter — “full of life,” because he plays Oscar as someone who seems to be going through the motions. But his performance is impressive and commendable for the sheer breadth of skins he has to inhabit. He sells every character, from the sewer-dwelling monster to the worn-out middle-class father to the rich banker. And physically, Lavant is a marvel of a performer because he gives each character a unique personality simply based on the way he uses his walk, his accent and his facial expressions.
Holy Motors is a difficult movie to connect with emotionally, simply because its characters are so fleeting that we don’t get time to fully engage or identify with them. This is a cold film in a lot of ways but its looks at various human experiences are well written and well executed. It’s a challenging and frustrating picture at times but those are virtues for anyone who is tired of seeing the same kinds of stories and narrative structures used over and over again in movies, TV and on stage.
If art cinema or foreign cinema scare you, this would not be an ideal place to start. But if you get around to Holy Motors, it’s a movie you’ll likely never forget.
*Holy Motors screenshots courtesy of Film-Grab.com / Les Films Du Losange.
Unrated | 116 min.
Premiered: May 23, 2012 (Cannes Film Festival)
Director & Screenplay: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue
Distribution: Les Films Du Losange