Holy Motors - SideReel Review
While a single viewing (or even three) of Holy Motors isn’t enough to begin to plumb the depths of its mysteries, it is enough to confirm that this weird, dazzling, utterly unique movie is one of the highlights of 21st century cinema thus far. The first feature-length film from French mad genius Leos Carax since 1999’s Pola X, Holy Motors is a wild trip through several different genres and possibly different planes of reality, acting as both an elegy for the movies and a look at the artificiality and essential strangeness of modern life.
Denis Lavant stars as Oscar, a brilliant actor/impersonator whose job and purpose in life are never quite made clear. He begins his day by getting into a stretch limo, driven by a faithful chauffeur named Celine (Edith Scob), and he’s told that he has nine appointments waiting for him. For each task, Oscar transforms himself using makeup and various costumes, and then exits the vehicle in disguise. The first job finds him dressing up as a decrepit old woman to beg for change on the street. For the second, he dons a motion-capture suit that covers his entire body and pretends to battle imaginary foes in a darkened room while computers record his actions to create a computer-generated fantasy epic (complete with freaky demon sex). For the third, he becomes a wild-haired, sewer-dwelling vagrant who kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes) in the middle of a photo shoot.
What’s going on here? And what’s Carax getting at? Perhaps the key to understanding Holy Motors can be found in a scene midway through the movie in which Oscar’s mysterious employer (Michel Piccoli) shows up in the limo to let him know that he’s unimpressed with his acting; Oscar responds that the cameras have become so small that he doesn’t even feel their presence anymore, and as a result, he no longer believes he’s an actor.
In other words, Oscar isn’t barging into real life in order to complete his assignments, but is taking part in elaborate, meticulously choreographed simulations that are either movie productions or some other kind of future entertainment. It’s not just Oscar’s performances that are unreal; everything that we’re watching is meant to be fake.
Right? Well, maybe, maybe not. Carax keeps trying to fool us again and again, testing the boundaries of what (if anything) can be considered real in this world and giving us very little stable ground to stand on. During a trip to pick up his "daughter" from a teen house party, it briefly seems like we’re getting a glimpse of the real Oscar as he tells her that he’s been busy with his appointments and engages in the first naturalistic conversation we’ve seen him conduct with someone other than Celine; but, of course, this too turns out to be just another performance that ends once he drops her off at "home." Later, Oscar encounters a fellow impersonator he was once romantically involved with (pop star Kylie Minogue, bringing a surprising amount of depth and pathos to her brief role) and goes on a tour of an abandoned department store with her. The movie heavily implies that their reunion is genuine and a temporary break from their acting work -- except that the scene includes a highly stylized musical number that feels as artificial as any of the previous appointments.
Holy Motors might be arguing that as films have become less important as a cultural institution and real life has become more insincere and just plain tackier (check out the scene set in a graveyard where the headstones tell mourners to visit the deceased’s websites), we’re now living in a world in which the line between performance and human interaction has been hopelessly blurred. Or it could just be a grab bag of crazy ideas that Carax has had rattling around in his head for the past decade (hey, you try explaining the movie’s coda, in which the impersonators’ limos start talking amongst themselves when no one is around). But regardless of what you ultimately take away from the film, Holy Motors’ individual pieces are so enthralling that it will likely inspire repeat viewings and debates for years to come. This is a tour de force of imagination that needs to be seen and argued about by anyone who truly cares about the past and future of cinema.