Holy Motors (2012) Review

Denis Lavant as “Monsieur Oscar”.
(Courtesy of Indomina Releasing)

Sure to be the most original film to hit theaters this year, Holy Motors is a refreshingly bizarre and mesmerizingly beautiful film that defies expectations with almost every shot. After a hiatus of thirteen years without a feature film, this marks the daring return of French director Léos Carax, who has achieved a work of art on par with his 1991 spectacle The Lovers on the Bridge. Those looking for a traditional drama should probably avoid this film like the plague, but for anyone interested in something gloriously and unapologetically surreal, this film delivers an experience like none other.

The story follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), an actor who is taken via limousine from one “appointment” to the next, transforming himself into new characters in the car’s portable makeup studio and playing out random scenes in public places for the entertainment of an unseen audience. Each scene blends reality and filmic artifice until the seams disappear. One moment, he’s a successful banker heading off to work in the morning. The next, he’s a bent-backed gypsy crone begging on a street corner. He dies several times throughout the day – sometimes even killing another version of himself – in scenes so real it becomes difficult to understand how and when one should suspend disbelief.

The film begins with Oscar waking up in a bedroom above a movie theater. He steps out into a balcony above the flickering projector and gazes out over a motionless audience as they watch a screen that is just out of frame. Then, in a series of perplexing montage cuts, Carax shows a dog-like beast silently prowling down the aisle amidst the gentle sound of breaking waves, followed by an image (presumably on the screen that the audience is watching) of a young girl staring out from a circular window. Then, in a much wider shot, a house that resembles a passenger ship is revealed and the sounds of the ocean fade away, introducing us to Oscar’s very first appointment as a banker beginning his day.

This opening sequence provides the key to understanding this film. It’s a love letter to French cinema, a film that found a clever mechanism through which to be a drama, a comedy, a thriller, a horror film, and more all at once, cycling through genres and subtle homage with a deft ease and a feverish desire to surprise at every turn. It is a contemporary fantasy, unhinged from a grounded narrative and without any explanation for how these scenes are being accomplished other than the obvious: movie magic. It’s as if the characters know they exist inside a movie about movies, and rush from one location to the next to complete the many disparate scenes for the audience before the film is required to end.

Throughout the course of the film’s two hours, one completely unexpected episode follows the next, each drastically different and stunningly memorable. In particular, a glorious motion capture sequence where Oscar is transformed from a martial arts master to a reptilian sex god, a touching and spontaneous singing performance from an old flame (Kylie Minogue), and the return of the sewer-dwelling, gibberish-spewing troglodyte that Lavant had previously played in Carax’s short film Merde, this time seen kidnapping a model (Eva Mendes) from a fashion shoot in a graveyard. Carax moves from one to the next with an energetic embrace of modern digital techniques while simultaneously harboring a deep nostalgic remorse for the death of the old days of cinema and a noticeable ambivalence regarding what consequences the new technology might have.

Despite its definite melancholy, the film is characterized by an irrepressible childlike imagination and awe, unashamed of its indulgences and blessed with a youthful attitude that isn’t weighed down one bit by its long memory of film history. Breathtaking in its beauty, hilarious in its absurdity, and brazen in its risks, Holy Motors is a magnificent treasure that will reward the open-minded viewer with a truly unforgettable experience that is worth revisiting time and again.

Catch Holy Motors at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre.