Holy Motors Review

One of the most talked about films of the year finally arrives

One of those films that appears to exist solely to divide audiences, Holy Motors is an audacious and bewildering experience that reminds you how fun and versatile cinema can be. Regardless of whether director Leos Carax intended the film to be indecipherable or not, he has fashioned a work that will delight as many as it will disappoint. For those who enjoy a walk on cinema’s wild side and are happy to go along with a film whose narrative makes very little sense at all, then a treasure trove of curiosities awaits them; scenes that serve no other function than to play with the medium and bounce ideas around onscreen, or try to tell a story all on their own. Those seeking a conventional story, or even one that eventually reveals its agenda, will go away disappointed.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a mysterious man, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is chauffeured around Paris from one location to the next, transforming himself in to different characters along the way in order to fulfil a variety of assignments. Each time he steps out of the car he begins a new story: starting out as a beggar woman, he changes in to a CGI model, a fairy-tale beast, an irate father and a banker among others; while the reason for his work remains shrouded in mystery.

Though seemingly unconnected on the surface, there is a clear sense that Carax is celebrating film as an artform across the various episodes. From the very first shot of a cinema audience looking back at us, there is little doubt he is playing with the conventions of moviemaking. Each segment tells a self-contained story, using different genres and archetypes to explore the world of films. This is most obvious during the second episode, as Lavant becomes a special effects green screen model; complete with ping pong ball-decorated outfit, he performs various suggestive movements with a similarly-attired female model as their fantastical digital avatars – enormous, dragon-like creatures – move correspondingly on a giant screen. Is Carax suggesting that even CGI-driven blockbusters have merits and beauty if one looks close enough? Or that what we see on screen is only a façade – a lie obscuring the dull and painful truth of reality? Or something else altogether? Who knows?

From here, things get even more outlandish with a bizarre fairy-tale set in (and under) a Parisian cemetery, as Eva Mendes’ Beauty succumbs to Oscar’s Beast in gruesome fashion. A terrifically entertaining entr’acte turns up at the halfway point, for no other reason than to celebrate entr’actes, during which Lavant walks around a church playing the accordion while his musical instrument-playing entourage steadily grows. The musical genre itself gets a special shoutout during an extended sequence with Kylie Minogue, whose character is seemingly employed in the same line of work as Oscar. She naturally gets to sing, though it’s a subdued, melancholy number with no Hollywood razzmatazz at all.

Throughout the film it becomes apparent that Oscar is losing enthusiasm for his job, particularly in his chats with chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob). A view on the current state of cinema, perhaps – tired with nowhere left to go? But then comes the final shot (no spoilers here), which adds the cherry of silliness to the cake of nonsense that is the film as a whole. Some might find its attitude and approach off-putting, and there are times when it leaves you behind, scratching your head; yet it dazzles and teases as much as it frustrates and confuses. No matter what your reaction, Holy Motors is essential viewing for the discerning cinema-goer.

Gavin Midgley

Updated: Sep 28, 2012

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Holy Motors Review | The Digital Fix