/ holy motors
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A man wakes in an airport hotel. Stepping through a hole in the wall, he enters a theatre. A baby runs down the aisle; an enormous bloodhound stalks through the shadows; the audience sits expectant in the dark, waiting for a show about to begin. We watch as Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) inhabits the bodies of separate, autonomous entities: an assassin, a father, a beggar, a monster. Ferried between his “lives” in a white limousine, we watch him work for a single day and night, silently witnessing his attempt to live “the beauty of the act”… and ponder exactly what that might mean.
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors defies description. Received at Cannes to considerable (if baffled) acclaim, the film is an experiment: a grotesque, touching, darkly funny, and oddly hollow expedition into the mind of an actor, and what it may be like to experience – with schizophrenic clarity – the process of living through multiple eyes.
Formally rigid, the film is reminiscent of Lars Von Trier’s cinematic essays: Monsieur Oscar is set nine characters, or “cases”, which he must systematically work through, each radically different in tone and content, and with many references to films of the past. Hints are dropped regarding the mysterious, possibly metaphysical organisation he works for, recalling the faceless, malevolent corporations of David Cronenberg’s early movies. And the whole thing is wrapped in the disjointed, tangent reality familiar to David Lynch, where the mundane becomes both angelic and demonic with the subtle change of a sound cue. But while its single elements may be superficially comparable to the work of other auteurs, Holy Motors is entirely its own beast – for better and worse.
While meaning in surrealist films is often made in the mind of the viewer, there is almost always a statement of intention somewhere within the mystery. Bunuel and Dali defy logic in Un Chien Andalou, but their defiance is grounded in free association and the conventions of cinema. Similarly, the murder-mystery at the heart of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is only the catalyst for a moving, deeply emotional rumination on the death of innocence; Laura Palmer’s actions in her final days of life are less important than what they mean. In Holy Motors, there is no such framework: no overarching theme besides transformation, and no overt point to be made. What it means to be Monsieur Oscar – who he is, what he’s doing, and certainly why he’s doing it – are deliberately left unanswered.
Clues are dropped, but nothing appears to come of them. Oscar is a cipher, living moments that are by turns universal (an old man seeks comfort on his deathbed), and outlandish (a monstrous ghoul abducts and idolizes a beautiful supermodel). Denis Lavant’s range is extraordinarily displayed, even if one of the film’s intentions seems intent on exposing his transformations as a fraud. A potentially revelatory moment involving Kylie Minogue seems to offer the possibility of both redemption and clarity, but both are denied by Carax’s dedication to his ruse, and the film’s lack of emotional engagement. Moment to moment, the film flies and flatlines – and its moment of success and failure feel oddly deliberate.
Absurdly funny and exquisitely horrible, Holy Motors ultimately feels like a punchline told over and over again. While the context may change, the setup remains the same: the “beauty of the act” is whatever we, the audience in the dark, believe we make of it.