What in the hell is "Holy Motors?" I wish I had the answer.
The fifth film by French enfant terrible Leos Carax, and the first in 13 years, is as confounding as it is pleasurable; as melancholic as it is invigorating. It’s a film of contradictions - apropos, considering the fact that it’s shot digitally while dealing directly with the death of celluloid, and seems to resuscitate the entire medium all the same. Not unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece "Weekend," it renounces cinema (or at least Carax’s interest in it) while simultaneously providing us with one of the freshest visions the big screen has seen in years, perhaps decades, perhaps ever.
But that’s just scratching the surface of this batshit-crazy experience. I saw it for the first time about 36 hours ago, haven’t stopped thinking about it since, and still my primary emotion is complete bewilderment. So let it be said, keep reading at your own risk: this film works best when you go in completely blind, and for those of you with exceedingly adventurous taste, well, your tickets should already be purchased. Hell, not only am I unsure what "Holy Motors" is about - mainly because what it’s about hardly matters; this is a movie that wants you to feel, not think - but also I’m not even entirely sure what happens.
I do know that star Denis Lavant, in one of the first sequences, gets into his stretch limo, greets his assistant/secretary/chauffer, and looks upon the first of nine assignments he has for the day. What follows is a series of performances; what’s left unanswered is who they’re for. Not unlike another great film releasing this weekend, "Cloud Atlas," we cycle through disparate genres and setups with alarming speed: Lavant is an old woman begging for change on the streets of Paris. Then he’s working behind-the-scenes of a motion-capture fantasy film (complete with graphic dragon-sex). Then he’s a grubby miscreant backed in his madness by the theme from "Godzilla" - and that’s all before the musical intermission.
In between the performances and the intricate prosthetic applications that come between them (captured with fetishizing detail by Carax’s compositions), he complains about his waning interest in the process, and laments the loss of cameras that were big enough for him to see. The cycling of genres, occurrences, and styles leaves you on the edge of your seat for every moment - Carax isn’t breaking the ’rules’ of narrative cinema as much as he is ignoring them entirely. Not only do you not know what’s going to happen next - and what a rare feeling that is nowadays - but also you’re often unsure what’s happening as you watch it.
It’s less surreal than absurd, and Carax clearly takes great joy in the way he allows all these sequences to intermingle. But to what purpose is all this madness aimed? That’s a question he has no interest in answering, much to the benefit of the film itself.
Surely, it could be a paean to the craft of acting: Lavant has been Carax’s muse throughout his career, and "Motors" looks upon his craft with the utmost respect. The construction, on a superficial level, allows Lavant to give the type of ’chameleon’ performance Hollywood actors dream of; the film is literally all about showing off how he disappears into each role (just wait till he plays his own assassin). None of it would work if Lavant didn’t play every sequence with the utmost seriousness, but he does, and as such the absurdity elevates into something much more.
But while these disparate sequences add up to an incredible feat, and Carax clearly has reverence for Lavant, I’m not quite sure ’tribute to the craft of acting’ properly explains a film like "Holy Motors." The aforementioned conversation about visible cameras has led many to think it’s a film ’about films’, and it’s hard not to feel a tinge of boredom behind Carax’s genre-jumping. One sequence suggests the social realism genre, another monster movies, another musicals, another sci-fi, etc.; and behind all of it is a distinct feeling of "isn’t this boring?" It’s a condemnation of everything it depicts; it’s as if it’s trying to find something new by mashing together all that is conventional (it succeeds and then some.)
But for those with prior knowledge about the filmmaker, it could just as easily be about Leos Carax as it is about cinema or acting or stretch limos or anything else. We open with Carax himself in a movie theater, watching an audience, and references to his filmography abound throughout - Lavant returns to the gutted store that Carax filmed so vivaciously in "Lovers on the Bridge," and plays a character he appeared as in Carax’s segment of the omnibus film "Tokyo!" References to the filmmaker’s troubled personal life are also hard-to-miss- the mother of his child died under mysterious circumstances, an apparent suicide, a year ago, and it hangs over the film like a cloud.
All of "Holy Motors" feels like a mournful eulogy - a man tired of his work, resigned that he can do nothing else, and looking on in sadness at what his life has become (whether this sadness is reserved for movies, Lavant, Carax, or something else entirely is up for debate). But at the same time, the craft and exuberance of the filmmaking gives off a ’joie de vivre’ so desperately missing in pretty much all of modern cinema. I’ve rarely seen anything achieve such highs and lows simultaneously.
Some films, when they reach just the right confection of entertainment and honest soul-searching, can be ’pop art’. Call this ’pop art-house’.