Writer/director Leos Carax’s deeply, satisfyingly bizarre Holy Motors is a film that almost seems to go out of its way to defy classification. Put a gun to my head and I guess I’d describe it as an art house romp, but even that doesn’t quite seem right. It’s Carax’s first feature length project in a decade and feels like both a loveletter and eulogy to the movies. An homage to all the magic that can be had watching images flicker on a big screen in the dark, wrapped in a deliberately confounding package designed to appeal only to those as obsessed with the art form as the director. It’s not really something that you can pick meanings or a thesis out of, which Carax made a point of avoiding when the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May. This is the sort of movie that will appeal only to those who have a love and knowledge of filmmaking as deep as Carax’s and don’t mind working out their own interpretation of how all the loving crafted pieces are supposed to slot together. So, it’s not exactly a crowd pleaser. Well, unless the crowd is comprised entirely of cinephiles who have fonder memories of movies than their own lives.
The film opens with the inconspicuous, ragged Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) awaking and stumbling towards a door in his bedroom. He walks out into a full theater of filmgoers. So, the man literally lives in the movies then… wait until you hear what he does for a living. He drives around in a limo with a gorgeous and mysterious driver (Edith Scob). Inside the limo is unrealistically large, filled with a full make up station and dressing room. He puts on a complex costume before each stop (a homeless woman, a masked assassin, and strange horny leprechaun/goblin, a caring father, etc.). When he walks out of the car, he’s lost in the role and plays out a small story. At one point he begs for change, later on he kills a double of himself, and eventually he meets Kyile Minogue for a musical interlude. Confused yet? Don’t worry, you should be. Each segment feels like a short film in itself. We’re never clear why he plays this role or who his employer is, but at one point a man enters the limo and starts discussing the audience. Oscar is putting on a show for us just like Carax is putting on the film for us.
Essentially each character Lavant plays stars in his own movie, with each segment offering another example of film’s unique power to enthrall. There’s a mini-thriller, a sadly realistic scene between a father and daughter (for a moment it seems like the one real sequence in the film, then Lavant’s wig comes off), and a surreal horror story with Lavant reprising his horny leprechaun (I really don’t know how else to describe it) from Carax’s segment in Tokyo!, who kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) and makes her conceal herself in Muslim garb while he lays on her naked with a massive erection. Almost any kind of film you can imagine pops up at some point on the journey. At times it feels like you’re watching a confusing experiment, at other times it feels like a French intellectual sketch comedy. The emotional peak comes when Kylie Minogue appears (dressed as a certain icon from Godard’s Breathless) as a former lover of Lavant and they wander into an abandoned department store to share a musical ballad. It sounds comically cheesy and at first those laughs are there, but soon Carax’s sincerity comes through and the song becomes bizarrely touching. Lavant is remarkable in every role, transforming his plain features into monsters and boring men, fully committing to each role with wit and gravitas. The cameo players do their jobs well, while Scob brings dignity to her vaguely femme fatale driver and amusingly puts on the mask from her famous debut in Eyes Without A Face towards the end to join in on Carax’s grand cinematic in joke.
Over the course of two hours the filmmaker pulls his audiences through the full gamut of the emotions and experiences possible in the cinema and at the end it all signifies nothing beyond “oh boy, what a joy films can be.” It would all be easy to write it all off as being self-indulgent twaddle were it not for the fact that Carax makes the surreal odyssey so inexplicably entertaining. This isn’t merely a pretentious string of movie tropes when they are executed by a filmmaker who fully understands and embraces the appeal of each sequence/style. Holy Motors is designed to leave viewers in a movie drunk daze, reminded of countless wasted nights in the dark. The fact that it’s all merely an art school prank and stylistic exercise seems irrelevant. Movies can be meaningless when they are this entertaining and Carax never commits the art house sin of boring the audience with his experiment. There are faint hints throughout the endeavor that suggest Carax might be suggesting that cinema is dead and this is his eulogy for all he loves about the fading art form. Some may share his feelings about film, but as far as I’m concerned if movies can still be made that are this alive with wit, ideas, style, comedy, tragedy, horror, joy, and tears, then surely there’s still some life left in old lady cinema.