Film Review: Holy Motors
Even though I’m now twenty years old, I still wanted to go trick-or-treating this Halloween. Instead, I ended up spending part of the evening at the cinema watching Leos Carax’s fifth feature-length film, which fittingly enough revolved around ideas of disguise and performativity, suiting the occasion well. And even though I didn’t get any free Haribo with the film, it was enough of an event that I didn’t really mind.
To get right down to it, Holy Motors is completely bizarre. The action takes place over the course of one day in the life of the cryptic Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is driven around Paris in a stretch limousine by his close colleague Céline (Édith Scob). His purpose is to stop off at nine so-called “appointments” at different locations in the city, and for each one, Monsieur Oscar adopts a different disguise, and in turn, a new identity. If this sounds a little off-kilter, just wait until you see what some of these appointments entail: keep your fingers clenched in preparation for what goes down in the third…
I don’t want to reveal too much in this review, given that watching Holy Motors with fresh eyes is a much more rewarding experience than being spoon-fed particular inferred interpretations. If you haven’t seen the film, suffice to say it’s a unique and brilliant watch, and you’re probably better off finishing here and coming back to the rest of this review after you’ve actually seen it for yourself. There’s no guarantee that you’ll definitively love or hate the film, but it’s definitely worth watching if only because there’s been little else like it released in recent memory.
For one thing, it’s consistently surprising. Throughout the film, Carax keeps reshuffling the pacing, unpredictably lurching from scenes of startling violence to moments as sombre and gentle as witnessing a man on his deathbed. Like his film’s central character, Carax incorporates many conflicting styles and tropes into his work, equally favouring a livewire fervour and a delicate sense of pathos. Everything is given a strange Lynchian twist, and even a cameo from Kylie Minogue (as a fellow limo passenger) is handled deftly, with a musical scene delivered with gravitas rather than with a cheesy, knowing wink.
It’s all tied up marvellously in Lavant’s engaging, enthralling performance. Even amid all the bizarre occurrences of Monsieur Oscar’s working day, Lavant never totally hams it up (even when does transform into a flower-munching goblin), and it’s during the quiet moments in the limousine, as Oscar exchanges thoughts with his driver (imbued with a subtle melancholy by Scob) that the film hits hardest, with the weary Oscar questioning the consequences of his actions upon others and himself.
In a film rich in potential for interpretations and discourses, it’s a mercy that Carax never lets things fall into an existentialist sludge. Beneath that eccentric exterior lies a sense of dark playfulness, realised in several moments of dry, deadpan humour, and in moments of arresting imagery, when a marriage is formed between the absurd and the beautiful. One scene in particular involves mo-capped lovemaking, and it’s weird and wonderful in equal measure as the figures glitter like constellations in the middle of such a rudimentary act.
It’s not for everyone, but Holy Motors should be applauded if only for its audacity. Whether you see it as a treatise on acting, on cinema, or on life, the universe and everything, you can’t deny the skill with which such a strange array of elements have been corralled into a cohesive and frequently dazzling whole.
Unhinged yet sophisticated, bizarre yet beautiful, Holy Motors is an accessible slice of art-house cinema which will leave your head bustling, both with arresting imagery, and with admiration for the conviction of Carax and Lavant.