The only thing I can assure you about Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is that it’s unlike anything else you will see this year. Whether or not you consider this a good thing or a bad thing will depend entirely on how you respond to the mysteries of Holy Motors. Myself, I was transfixed — even during the one segment (involving motion capture) I didn’t much care for. I was transfixed because it’s rare that we get the chance to encounter anything this freely inventive, this amusing, this ineffably sad and, yet, this full of life. The very fact that it’s almost certain to be one of the most divisive films of the year — despite its 91 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes — is in itself a testament to its incredible fearlessness. That’s also part of its appeal, since it makes art feel a little dangerous (and it should).
I approached Holy Motors (which I’ve now seen three times) with very little knowledge of filmmaker Leos Carax. I’d read enough that I knew his name was an anagram of his real first and middle names, Alex Oscar. The only thing of his I’d seen was his “Merde” segment in Tokyo! (2009) — whose main character, Monsieur Merde, reappears here. And, going to see Holy Motors, I certainly understood that the film was…well, a significant departure from what you might call a normal movie. Well, I’m certainly not going to deny that — nor will I claim that it’s a film that doesn’t challenge the viewer (some consider that a bad thing). It is indeed a film that — like all truly worthwhile art — is open to multiple interpretations. However, I think it’s worth noting that for all this, it’s not hard to follow what’s going on in the storyline. In fact, this becomes evident quite early on in the film. What is not so clear is why it’s going on — and this is where interpretation comes into play.
The film’s opening is one of its key sequences. It features a packed theater with an almost entirely motionless audience that is apparently mesmerized by what’s happening on the screen. But how can they be? Their eyes are closed as whatever drama is playing out. Sounds from this film awaken a sleeping man (Carax), who enters the theater’s empty balcony through a secret door in the wall. He looks down on the sleeping audience, whereupon the sound of an ocean liner’s horn takes the film to its first actual sequence. The sound is a perfect segue because the story proper opens at a house that resembles an art deco steamship. Here is where the day begins for Monsieur Oscar (the remarkable Denis Lavant), who is setting off for his day’s work — all of which is conducted from a white stretch limo driven by a blonde woman named Celine (Edith Scob, who finally dons the mask she wore in her most famous film, 1960’s Eyes Without a Face). In the car — which doubles as a dressing room, complete with lighted makeup mirror — he receives his various “appointments.”
These range from the one he’s apparently still playing from the night before, to playing a stooped-over beggar woman whose world has been reduced to “pavement and feet,” to a motion capture artist, and then to the return of the Tokyo! character, M. Merde, whose wildly anti-social aggressions are again accompanied by music from Godzilla (1954). It is unclear whether M. Oscar’s utterance of, “Merde,” merely reflects his recognition of who he’s playing, or is an expression of disgust at doing the same role again. This round, Merde bites off a woman’s fingers, licks Eva Mendes’ armpit, carries her off to his lair in the sewer, redresses her, strips himself naked and crawls into her lap in a kind of very blasphemous Madonna and Child pose. This is not something you’re likely to see again any time soon.
There are other characters — a father, a killer and his victim, a dying man, a man returning to his suburban home. There’s even an accordionist — a role he undertakes for the film’s entr’acte. (After seeing this, I’m of the opinion that all films would be improved by such an addition.) There is also a telling encounter with a shadowy figure (played by that grand old man of French cinema, Michel Piccoli) who simply appears in the limo to critique Oscar’s performances — which some are finding a little tired. Oscar complains that technology has made the cameras so small that he has trouble even believing they’re there — a reflection of Carax’s dissatisfaction with the digitalization of cinema. “Isn’t this nostalgia a bit sentimental?” asks the man, who further asks why Oscar continues — only to be told that it is for the “beauty of the act.” “Beauty,” remarks the man, “They say it’s in the eye of the beholder.” “And if there’s no more beholder?” asks Oscar. (Like an unresponsive audience with their eyes closed perhaps?)
Late in the film, Oscar has an encounter with a lost love (splendidly played by Kylie Minogue) — a woman in his own profession. Their reminscing even includes a song for the woman that’s at once beautifully moving and just slightly silly — played out in the gutted remains of an old Samaritaine department store. It’s a moment of splendid transcendence that makes the viewer suspect there’s more than a little of Carax in M. Oscar. It’s also a moment that leads to shattering horror and brings the film into a kind of weary retreat. I’ve described much, I know, but I haven’t scratched the surface of the film’s richness — and I’ve only hinted at what it’s about, or what it might be about. Is it a funeral march for the death of cinema? Is it Carax’s own thoughts on a future cinema? Is it about film in general — playing with genres and cross-references? Is it nothing more than Carax trying to blast a complacent sleeping audience back into conscious life? I think it’s all these things and probably more — and if you’re really interested in cinema, you need to see for yourself. Not Rated, but contains violence, some gore, adult themes and full-frontal male nudity (in its prominent state).
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre