CIFF Review: Holy Motors

There’s a photographer in “Holy Motors” shooting pictures rapidly and blindly of a lifeless model dressed in gold as played by Eva Mendes. “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty,” he says in complete cartoonish astonishment.

At that moment, a hideous man dressed in a green leprechaun’s suit and no undershirt pushes his way to the front of the crowd and stands silently biting his decrepit fingernails. The man has long red hair plastered to the side of his head and speaks only gibberish. He’s made a scene.

The photographer turns to him and starts shooting photos of him. “Weird, weird. Weird!”

Is this how one should watch “Holy Motors,” the absurdist French drama by the cult French director Leos Carax? It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year and wowed audiences by being completely nutzo and was heralded as an underappreciated cult film because this year’s particular jury led by Nanni Moretti couldn’t possibly “get it.”

I saw it in a sold out screening at the Chicago International Film Festival Sunday night, where it was received by an audience that was half stunned and confused and half ecstatic.

I found myself in neither crowd, frustrated by this repugnant mishmash of a film that either has no point or all too much of one. If you’re going to make a surrealist masterpiece, my advice would be to not be disingenuous about it.

Luis Bunuel or David Lynch Carax is not, try as he might to put his star in a wig that shares the bizarre Lynchian swoosh. He’s made a film that revels in its own spontaneous style, modeling its half-baked ideas and genre spoofs only for us to gawk. The result is a series of avant-garde and art house shorts that have no commonalities, with the exception that its hero seems to smoke in every one. For every moment of “Holy Motors” that is tearful, erotic, giddy, suspenseful or chilling, Carax almost always has a way of ending each with a cheap visual gag. For all its visual flair and profundity, these segments resound as little more than stylized forgeries.

The film does not have a conventional narrative, if any at all, but it does have a protagonist, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant). We first see him walking out of a mansion and into a limo where he is followed by bodyguards in black sedans. His driver, Celine (Edith Scob), informs him he has nine appointments today.

In preparation for these, he dons wigs, face putty and makeup in front of a brightly lit dressing room mirror. When he steps out of the car, he has made a complete transformation into another person.

First we see him as a hobbled street beggar, unrecognizable and hopeless. Next he dons a black motion capture suit and performs martial arts for a dark, empty room full of infrared lasers. A tall, slender, faceless woman walks out and is bathed in red by the lights, and the two slide across each other’s bodies in sexual acrobatics. The resulting animation is two snake-like monsters having sex. In another segment we meet the leprechaun, who kidnaps Eva Mendes and takes her to a cave, gouges at flowers and her hair, tears her clothes to make a gold burka, then strips down himself to reveal a full on boner and falls asleep to the sound of her lullaby.

Now after all this, is there any part of you that could believe a segment with Oscar picking up his daughter from a party and driving her home in disappointment could be considered genuine?

Don’t all these dramatic segments, like when he’s talking to his daughter on his death bed, or when he’s dragging himself helpless to the limo after being stabbed in the neck, feel like a lie? Maybe all movies are kind of a lie, which leads to what I think “Holy Motors” is actually about.

Now, let me preface this analysis by saying that “Holy Motors” may not be about anything. If watching Bunuel has taught me anything, it’s that two images back to back might not have anything to do with the other, and that anyone tying their brains into a pretzel to figure it out is either embarrassing themselves or projecting.

What I gathered is that this is a movie about performances. It’s about cinema and actors, and Denis Lavant should be applauded for tackling and embodying so many roles so convincingly. Here we have a guy who is such a method actor that for a moment he quite literally becomes someone else. If he were the same person when he got in and out of that limo, then each appointment would be impacted by the one that came before it. He’d be tired, if not dead several times over.

But that’s a plot analysis. The film’s opening shot is of a darkened movie theater audience, acting almost as a mirror looking back at us. This immediately makes us consider our own voyeurism and establishes the implication that it’s all a movie where anything can happen. Carax also includes glimpses of footage from the birth of cinema, like a naked man stretching or a hand clapping, to reference a time when the camera was so omnipresent that actors were aware of their performance, enabling them to embody anything on screen because there was no clear definition for what cinema was.

There are more subtle hints as well. One segment references names like Theo and Vogan, both of which are used in earlier appointments, suggesting that Oscar is an actor who has past traits seep in to his work. Each segment also seems to reference a particular genre, be it character drama, melodrama, gangster, art house or musical.

Maybe I’ve unlocked the film’s riddles and its brilliance, but it doesn’t excuse quite a lot. It doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s a mean spirited movie where violence and sex seem to occur without reason. It doesn’t lend for future viewing where more details can be unlocked because certain moments like the accordion ensemble, Celine’s green mask or the film’s final shot, are nothing more than one-off absurdist jokes, if not just Easter eggs. And it neglects the fact that directors like Bunuel and Lynch have a much stronger control over the tone of the audience. You know if you’re being duped, you know if a moment is supposed to be heartbreaking or beautiful and you know how you feel even if you don’t know what you’re seeing.

Carax’s film misses these marks. It often puts more exotic things on screen than actually compose them in a dynamic way, and Lavant’s performances should not be overstated because the film doesn’t give us much of a base ground from which to gauge his transformation.

I think claims that Carax’s film will be remembered as a classic years from now are exaggerated. It’s a movie that stands out only for its weirdness and little else.

1 ½ stars

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2 Comments

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  1. Have to agree with your closing sentence and quite frankly I’m amazed so many have loved it. Each to there own. Good review!

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  2. I age with your interpretation. It is definitely about film making – in some scenes I think even tiny cameras can be seen.. But I disagree with your concluding its worthlessness. When you seemingly dismiss it for to much violence and sex, did you not think that, given out is about films, this may be an ironic digg at the film industry today, ie that there is to much sex and violence? I agree that perhaps it us a little too obtuse to be a future classic, but still a quality piece of auteur cinema making, I think we can all agree!

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