A cinema crowd sits comatose; lulled into sleep by whatever it is they’re being shown. Another humdrum movie. Whatever. The light plays on their closed eyes and moribund faces. In an upstairs room, Holy Motors’ director Leos Carax awakes, and, using a key that is part of his hand, opens a door in the wall. He appears on a balcony above the slumbering audience, observing them. Dogs appear in the gangways between the rows of seats. They pad forward. They are Carax’s dogs, and they’ve come to wake you the fuck up.
Or perhaps not. Because whilst Holy Motors feels like an audacious jolt to the senses and a vital reaction against predictable narrative cinema, it is also one of the most dreamlike films I’ve seen in a very long time. Leos Carax isn’t afraid to dream a little bigger, and this film is as slippery as the memory of what you dreamt about last night; half there… half not, vivid but out of reach.
And it had Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes in it.
There is a framework of a sort here. We follow a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar, a performer who is driven around Paris in a luxurious stretch limousine by his attentive driver Céline (Edith Sob). On this day he has seven ‘assignments’, and Holy Motors follows their completion. They vary drastically, from posing as an old beggar, to murdering his own doppelgänger, to, well whatever it is that happens with Eva Mendes (which involves a burka and an erection).
Monsieur Oscar is played by Denis Lavant. Best known to these eyes as the guy who keeps getting hit by cars in UNKLE’s “Rabbit In Your Headlights” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cud_k9f6tqk
His work in Holy Motors is nothing short of remarkable. Brave, committed, astonishingly physical. A tour de force. Without it, the film would probably not hold together as well as it does. The framework of Oscar’s seven assignments is merely a through-line for a series of outstanding vignettes. And whilst Carax’s control of the varying sections is absolute, he places their success in the hands of Lavant. It is arguably the performance of the year. World-weary and afraid he is getting too old for what he does, he humanises Oscar even as the character’s true self remains elusive. Layers constantly peel away.
This ever-fluctuating sense of reality can feel a little frustrating. Carax’s offers few handholds for the viewer, and those we do get are subtly subverted. On at least three occasions we are given to believe we are seeing the ‘true’ Oscar, but it is possible – even probable – that none of them are his ultimate persona. Maybe he doesn’t even have one, but is pure performance, pure life in all its forms.
If this all sounds a little unconventional for a film review then it’s because Holy Motors isn’t to be approached like a conventional film. This is, in a way, pure cinema. Carax frees the medium from its ties to the narrative structures of books or plays, instead bringing us something free-floating and fluid, more like music or art. Film is merely his medium for expression. As a result, yes, Holy Motors is indulgent, but isn’t all art? Even when it’s being absurd (and Holy Motors is frequently just that) there is sincerity to Carax’s vision. It is this commitment and integrity that allows the film to rise above what could have been a pretentious folly.
More than anything, Holy Motors feels like a feast of sensations as opposed to ideas. Early on there is a sequence in which Oscar performs in a motion capture studio, only to be joined by an alluring partner. They intertwine in a sexual celebration of the physical. Later on, Carax stages a little interval for the audience; a joyous musical number for accordions, with Levant recast as bandleader. These sequences – as with all of Holy Motors’ most vividly staged pieces – are films in their own right, designed to convey a feeling as much as an argument or story.
One thing’s for sure, everything looks brilliant. An obvious comparison would be to David Lynch – in terms of both style and aesthetics. The rolling limousines recall that dreamy opening to Mulholland Drive, whilst the lush, rich colours recall that film’s palette and sensibilities, yet blended with the murkiness of INLAND EMPIRE. As with Lynch’s work, I would urge you to see it in a cinema. In the dark it draws you in, seduces you.
Carax has referred to this film as a science fiction movie without any science. With its limousines the film recalls another unusual sci-fi-adjacent film of this year; Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. But where that film was all brains, Holy Motors is all soul. And heart. Even when it’s winking at the audience, as in Oscar’s final assignment, which depending on your sense of humour, will either delight or confound. An inevitable subversion of expectations, or the final straw in a maddening two hours.
Which brings us to the crux of how good Holy Motors is. It’s likely to be as good as you want it to be. If you’re up for something very different, wilfully out of left field, provocative and without one definition, then there are infinite delights to be found here. On the other hand, if you treat the film as an exercise to get through, then you’re likely to find your patience tested. I for one was overjoyed. I was happy to ‘unlearn’ cinema and let Carax take me somewhere else. It could be a movie about everything. Or it might be about nothing at all. Just a vivid dream.
Do I have to wake up?