Movie Review: Holy Motors
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Wherever you fall on the adoration-annoyance spectrum in your response to “Holy Motors,” one thing is certain: Leos Carax’s hugely imaginative new film will not leave you looking like one of the dead-eyed moviegoers in the film’s opening scene.
The frozen crowd is shot from the perspective of the movie screen as the audience watches the final scenes of King Vidor’s 1928 silent film, “The Crowd.” An unnamed man (played by Carax) awakes in a room near an airport, the arriving and departing planes giving an early sense of movement and passage to this complex metaphor, and uses a secret passageway to the theater. Carax, with his first feature since 1999, seems to be preparing his audience to be shaken from their doldrums. He intends to engage the audience. Mission accomplished.
The surreal scene serves as something of a prologue for this bizarre story from Carax that thrilled and confused audiences at its premiere in Cannes and later at Fantastic Fest.
The story begins in earnest with a small man named Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) leaving what appears to be his house to head to work. He climbs inside a stretch white limousine. Through the partition inside the ostentatious car, he discusses his daily agenda with the elegant and gorgeous Celine (Édith Scob). He has nine appointments scheduled for the day.
But these aren’t business meetings. Oscar (his name a possible reference to the film statuettes) will travel the streets of Paris throughout the day and night performing a peculiar role-play with a host of characters. His work is at once dangerous, macabre, vulnerable, brutal and beautiful.
The limousine looks like the backstage of an old theater, complete with vanity mirror and an endless supply of costumes. The diminutive and muscular Lavant, looking like a taut trapeze artist, transforms completely as he moves from old beggar woman to a scornful father and a professional killer.
After engaging in his role-play, he returns to his car and begins his next costume change. Each interaction offers a chance for Oscar to help those in the scenes find an emotional connection or some varied type of closure.
It is unclear whether these participants are performing as well, but at one point Oscar’s stern boss (prolific French actor Michel Piccoli) enters the limousine and reprimands Oscar for losing his enthusiasm for the work. The cameras are watching, he tells Oscar, even if they’re undetectable. Who the audience is remains a mystery as well.
The most unsettling scene occurs when Oscar takes on the persona of Monsieur Merde (a character Carax introduced in the 2008 film “Tokyo!,” which he directed with Michel Gondry and South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho). Dressed in green with a fierce red beard, Merde, looking like a homeless troll, enters a park and absconds from a high-class photo shoot with a gorgeous model (Eva Mendes), whom he takes to a subterranean lair. But during his graphic seduction of the model (prepare yourself for some full-frontal male nudity), the roles reverse and Merde reverts to a helpless child resting in the lap of his adored. Among other things, Carax has said that the creepy character represents “fear and phobia.”
The film is at its most emotionally resonant and chilling in a sequence with a lost and depressed flight attendant, Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue), who wanders a vacant building singing “Who Were We?,” a song draped in a stark sadness and purity like death. The song is part of an excellent soundtrack that moves from rousing (an amazing accordion sequence) to mournful (Gerard Manset’s ode to the passage of time, “Revivre”).
Carax stuffs his film with innumerable film and literary references — Vidor, Merde’s “Beauty and the Beast” motif, 1960’s “Eyes Without a Face,” nods to Franz Kafka and quietly horrifying Kubrickian darkness — as one would expect from a director who got his start writing for the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema.
Though the movie has obvious artistic ambitions, it never feels pretentious, in part due to the dark humor underlying much of the storytelling and Lavant’s captivating virtuoso performance. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier captures the longing of the characters with artful close-ups and paints Paris as a cradle of melancholic beauty that engulfs the audience.
It can be very hard to parse Carax’s exact meaning. Ruminations on our disconnected modern world (as seen in the limousine and tombstones labeled with websites), reincarnation and interconnectivity, and life as performance certainly leave a mark. But, as with most of David Lynch’s movies, “Holy Motors” is the kind of film that you feel first and understand later. It leaves itself open for endless interpretations, a sign of fully realized art.
And somehow, even with a family of monkeys and an extremely bizarre benediction, the movie connects with a desperate place that often goes ignored. It may be the weirdest and most challenging movie to open in Austin this year. It’s also oddly moving.