Just a few days ago I wrote about “Cosmopolis”, a movie I said was impossible to penetrate after only one viewing and competently write about the very next day. And here I am again, facing the exact same problem with “Holy Motors”, the new film by Leos Carax. However the similarities between these two films do not end there as both have a surprisingly similar design. Both films follow a protagonist through a day made up of a set of encounters and episodes, while said protagonist cruises through a modern metropolis in a white stretch limo.
But that’s where the similarities seem to end and the films diverge on thematic, presentational and tonal grounds. “Cosmopolis” seems to be a more topical film of the two with its absurdist look at our capitalist society, while on the other hand “Holy Motors” strikes me as all encompassing in its design and the language of the film is cinema itself. Some critics call it a journey through the history of cinema and it’s easy to see why.
Early on in the film there is a sequence set on a mo-cap stage that by its design seems to spit in the eye of the modern CGI loaded blockbusters. It’s visually awesome and it bluntly shows that what these people do in mo-cap stages and the raw performances they give are way more fascinating than the computerized end product of their labors. It is further telling that Oscar, our protagonist, climbs up a factory to enter the stage, which may very well be a statement on the current assembly line moviemaking of Hollywood. And this is only one facet of this sequence which can also be seen as a critique of the digitalization of life itself (a recurring theme of the film) but it also goes beyond its imminent surrealism and becomes performance art of the most captivating form.
And every episode in this film is like this, they all seem to have multiple threads of thought going through them and each has a cinematic backbone of its own. One is a surrealist monster movie followed by the music from “Godzilla”, where a grotesque incarnation of Oscar kidnaps a model and takes her to his lair. And there things turn even weirder with a combination of both sexual and religious images. But isn’t that something all great monster movies play with - ancient Gods and sexual curiosities? Another episode seems to be a gangster film, and another seemingly the most honest and personal turns in to a musical which Oscar disapprovingly interrupts. They’re all their own worlds in a way, their own movies, and they only have one constant, Oscar, who is played to amazing effect by Denis Lavant. A once in a lifetime performance.
But what does Oscar even do? He seems to have a job that boils down to him being driven around from episode to episode only to play his part. And the only constant for him is his driver Celine, a mother figure, a guardian angel. So life and art meet in this film in the most surprising of ways, and a big pointer seems also to be the name of the protagonist, Oscar. The film director’s birth name is Alexandre Oscar Dupont. Is this an incarnation of Leos Carax himself as he’s struggling through his existence with art and life?
Maybe but I wouldn’t know for sure, as this is my first Leos Carax movie and I do not know all too much about the man either. However it got me more than curious to look up his other work as “Holy Motors” is probably my favorite film of 2012, at least so far. But then again I do not think that there is a single all encompassing interpretation as “Holy Motors” feels like a work of surrealist automatism, which is a form of surrealism I usually would find obtuse in cinema. However in the hands of a supreme craftsman it can be a sublime experience, and in the hands of Leos Carax the result is a film that is a living and breathing cinema. And that is what “Holy Motors” is, an unforgettable cinematic experience and as such it is one that no other film can provide, or will ever be able to repeat.
Denis Lavant - Oscar
Edith Scob - Celine
Kylie Minogue - Eva Grace / Jean
Eva Mendes - Kay M
Elise Lohmeau - Lea / Elise
Original language: French