AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU RAY: Now
RUNNING TIME: 115 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A man wakes up one morning, locates and opens a secret door in his apartment. Walking through it, he wanders into a packed movie house where a young child and a giant dog wander up and down the aisles. Meanwhile Oscar travels through Paris in a white limousine driven by his friend Celine. His job involves stopping for various ‘appointments’, where he has to become an entirely different character complete with makeup, mannerisms and speech. Throughout the course of the day he becomes a beggar woman, banker, motion capture artist, assassin, disappointed father and many others…..
I really hate where I live sometimes. That short statement might seem like an odd way to open a review of a film I am going to praise considerably. The thing is, if I had lived in a major city, near a cinema which had actually shown the film, I would have got to see Holy Motors on the big screen and then included it in my top twenty films of the year article: in fact, it might have topped it. However, because both of the cinemas local to me show exactly the same movies and hardly anything subtitled or unusual, I tend to miss out on many of the most interesting and critically acclaimed movies of the year. No, the powers-that-be think that the citizens of Basingstoke wouldn’t understand Beasts Of The Southern Wild or Amour [actually on second thoughts maybe they’re right], so they want the latest blockbusters in as many screens as possible, and in both 3D and 2D. Now I’m not knocking blockbusters; I often love them and happily get caught up in the hype as much as the next person, but as someone who likes diversity in his film viewing and certainly spent some of last year bemoaning the lack of originality and mediocre quality of the cinema’s output, it’s intensely frustrating that I couldn’t really get a proper overview of the year because I had missed out on quite a deal.
As I began to watch Holy Motors, I was sure I remembered writer/director Leon Carax’s name from something many years before, and after seeing the unforgettable face of its star Denis Lavant for a few minutes, I realised it was from the 1997 film les amants des Pont Neuf, a striking melding of gritty realism and romantic fantasy which really ‘wowed’ me when it came out [and I got to see it on the big screen too]. Overall he has only made five feature films over the span of his 29-year directorial career, and maybe this is a good thing, because he really does seem to be a filmmaker with a unique vision and incredible imagination which I feel could be diluted if he started tossing off a film a year. Think of Stanley Kubrick; I’m sure one of the reasons his films were so consistently outstanding is because he gave himself space in-between each film to breath and spent a long time conceiving each one.
Holy Motors is like the bastard son of Charlie Kaufman and Alexandro Jodorowsky, with a heavy influence of David Lynch. If you like the kinds of off-the-wall films these people make, than you’ll know already that you will thoroughly enjoy Holy Motors. If you don’t , then I’m not sure that I will be able to do much to convince you to see it, but I will say that it is astoundingly original and if you were bored by the predictability and laziness of much of what came out last year, this may just be the ticket for you. This film is almost the definition of the term ‘not for all tastes’, but you can say that about virtually any movie. I know some people who don’t even like Star Wars. Watching Holy Motors, I didn’t understand all of what was going on, but I got the same thrill I get from watching any film that doesn’t feel hemmed in trying to be ‘normal’ or ‘make sense’, or tries to push the boundaries and give the grey matter a good work over. Like all the great surreal films, it’s not just a random collection of weird incidents; it’s full of clues, allusions, suggestions etc, as to what it might be all about, like a puzzle box, and you can’t wait to return time and time again to try to solve all this. Such films often bypass the normal areas of the brain and reach a part which is more open and receptive.
So what we have, reduced to its most simplistic level, is basically a tale of an actor whose job it is to play various roles, to ‘become’ other people. He travels round Paris in a white limo driven by Edith Scob, one of the stars of Eyes Without A Face, George Franju’s brilliant poetic horror masterpiece from 1960, and looking amazingly good for her age. They talk sometimes, but most of the time Oscar spends in the car is spent changing into someone else. We see in detail the various paraphernalia he has to use, from latex to blusher, and all this made me wonder if the film was, in part, about our seeming need for people [actors and actresses] to become others for our entertainment, and how odd the concept basically is. Considering Oscar’s ‘roles’ go from being a destructive tramp who seems to entertain people to a motion-capture artist, perhaps we are also being asked to think about how entertainment has progressed, or not, over the centuries. In amongst all the madness, there’s the odd comment on things like cameras getting smaller. I have a mixed attitude to this kind of thing myself. Isn’t it clever how you can now do everything on a phone? Is it actually a good thing though? Holy Motors also appears to be nothing less than about the act of seeing films, a subject that has been the basis for many great movies throughout cinema’s history.
Of course if you don’t want to think about all this kind of stuff than you don’t have to, as Oscar changes into person after person, in sequences which continually refuse to go where you think they will, but often seem to contain moments of real humanity. At one point, Oscar seems to be an old man dying, and the scene is really sad and touching, but then we have the rug pulled out from under our feet and we are left with a joke. The pace of this film is fairly leisurely; it’s not quite the sensory overload one might expect, which is why I think it is might actually be easier to assimilate than some might think, even if they’ve never even heard of The Holy Mountain or Inland Empire. There’s a bit of sexual content, most notably a motion-capture sequence that plays like a certain scene from The Lawnmower Man on drugs, and some violence in a brutal segment where Oscar becomes an assassin and has to kill…..himself [but not in the way it sounds]. Most of the film though is done with a refreshing if bonkers sense of humour, including a really odd but actually rather appropriate use of two Akira Ifikube tracks from Godzilla movies. The sight of a mad guy running around a graveyard scoffing flowers while the theme for the King Of The Monsters blares out almost brought tears of joy to this Kaiju fan’s eyes.
Apparently this sequence also refers to an earlier film by the director, but if you haven’t seen it the cineaste in you will be far more likely to pick up on the fact that, for instance, Oscar seems to live in a house that once belonged to a certain Monsieur Hulot, or that Kylie Minogue [yes, Kylie Minogue] looks and walks like Jean Seberg from a bout de soufflé. The whole history of French cinema seems to almost exist in this film, along with bits of others, and it’s all there for you to pick up if you notice, but if you don’t, it doesn’t really matter, and it never took me out of the movie, unlike for instance Quentin Tarantino’s lesser efforts, which come across of Highlights From Cool Cult Movies Which Tarantino Thinks You Should See Before You Die. I smiled at the things I picked up on and that was it. One of the things that I couldn’t stop thinking about was how brilliant Denis Lavant’s performance is. He really does become every single character. It’s a mind-boggling achievement, and the sort of performance that should win Oscars, but of course the film is too strange to even get a look in, isn’t it?
As the film goes past the half way point, we begin to be given tantalising hints about what is happening, but they remain hints. A certain sadness creeps over the film, most notably in the Minogue bit where her and Oscar meet, talk of old times, and she sings a rather sad, melancholic song. Aside from the fact that it’s shocking to hear her sing something that’s good for once [though one of her ghastly pop hits is heard earlier], the lyrics seem to be deliberately muffled so that, even if they seem to explain things regarding her and Oscar, you can only hear bits and pieces. And it soon becomes possible that the nature of Oscar’s life could actually be very sad indeed. The metaphors will be plain to see for anyone with a brain, while the film appears to end on a note which is both mad, perverse, sad, and heavily symbolic of the role of performers in cinema. Though it is followed by, and I’m not really giving much away here of this film which is full of wonderful oddness, talking automobiles. I guess in most other movies, finishing with a bit from a live-action version of Cars would seem really stupid. Not in this one.
There are portions which are a little sluggish compared with the rest of the film [though that’s not automatically a bad thing], and I’m not sure if the naturalistic visual style entirely works for the material. Nonetheless, Holy Motors is a breath of fresh air, a throwback to the glory days of the 70’s where more filmmakers were willing to through caution to the winds, experiment and really go the extra mile. It’s a film that totally and utterly restores my faith in cinema, because I now know that, out there, there are still people who are willing to explore the edges of what is truly possible with the artform [and create masterpieces as they do].
The R2 Blu Ray and DVD of Holy Motors includes:
* Interview with Director Leos Carax
* Deleted Scenes