David Beal reviews Leos Carax’s polarizing new film. Check out Will Noah and Theo Zenou’s takes on the film as well.
Holy Motors screens at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday October 11th at 6pm, and opens at Film Forum for a theatrical run Wednesday October 17th.
In the brilliant, dialogue-less opening sequence of Holy Motors, director and chief mischief-maker Leos Carax establishes the movies as a space to be explored and returned to, both a frontier and a warm home. During the opening credits he makes a phone call back in time, launching his first film in over a decade with a few clips of the earliest extant moving pictures (the giddy and ghostly reels of Marey and Muybridge, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em). Immediately afterwards, Carax plops his camera in front of a rapt audience at a packed movie theatre. For a suspended moment, it’s a flickering confrontation of audience vs. audience, both a communion and a mutual challenge between us and them. But before long we cut to a man sleeping in his bedroom. He wakes up from a dream and walks toward his wallpaper, which shows a dark forest. He kicks in the wall and finds the crowd in the movie theatre. We never see the screen in front of them, but the soundtrack to the film they’re watching consists of the sounds the man heard out his own bedroom window.
The man is played by Carax himself, but from then on, the man we’re stuck with is Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who seems to exist solely to put on elaborate public performances, or “appointments,” that may or may not be movies. A white limousine carts him around late-night Paris as he glides from vignette to vignette, character to character. He’s a vicious and horny cave-dweller with mommy issues. He’s two thugs killing each other in a warehouse. He performs a bizarre dance-copulation in a motion capture suit. He’s a dying uncle, a forlorn lover, the husband of an unexpected animal. But in transit to these absurd, eye-catching scenes, Oscar gives a more complicated performance, a performance that dyes the movie a somber hue beneath its often grotesque surface: he’s himself. He breaks character, chats with his faithful chauffeur (Edith Scob), removes old makeup and applies prosthetic scars, and asks quiet questions about the nature of cameras, screens, and performance. At every turn, he and Carax are reminding us of the artifice of the film we’re watching. These forays or intermediate scenes always verge on making Holy Motors too naked or solvable, but they never manage to feel like explanations. Nor are they elegies or swan songs (it’s too much fun for that); instead, they’re gentle meditations on the movies, and they only sweep us in even more — partly because we never know what’s truly a threat to reality and what isn’t. Oscar can’t escape the cinema: even in his limo-sanctuary, he speaks to his chauffeur through a video screen.
Though it bears some resemblance to the refracted narratives of Jacques Rivette and the whimsical early fantasies of Jean-Luc Godard — Leos Carax’s French New Wave forefathers — Holy Motors unfolds with something more like the shapeshifting theatricality of a Tom Waits record. And although it’s a bit too slick, the movieworks because it’s more playful and lived-in than it is polemical. Denis Lavant carries Holy Motors lightly on his back, and the questions raised are never-quite-profound, never-quite-flippant. Everything’s a movie, and that’s OK.