Holy Motors (2012, Leos Carax)

The layout of Holy Motors is pretty much this: a gentleman called Monsieur Oscar played by an alternately vibrant and cranky Denis Lavant, throughout one day changes costumes and faces and behaviors to participate in what seem to be living performances: he terrorizes people in the guise of a cannibalistic human monster, he does motion capture, he does death-defying spy stuff and sorrowful romantic stuff. These amount to vignettes or sketches or performance art pieces but in fact are (for the most part) existing in what seems like the real world, but then again it’s all a movie, and then again he’s just an actor and these are just performances, but then again not exactly, and fuck it just see the thing cause I can’t explain this very well. But there’s a chimpanzee and some talking limos also, and… this isn’t getting any clearer, is it? It’s a surreal and enigmatic film, basically, and in fits and starts it’s nearly as much fun as this makes it sound.

Indeed, for some of us, Leos Carax’s film is likely to be heaven, and from any imaginable perspective, Lavant’s performance is wonderful. But I found myself adrift and alienated from the piece, and I don’t think it’s because I was unprepared for its obliqueness; indeed, I was quite ready for something dreamlike and nonlinear, unconcerned with typical story points, but the sinister limousine ride through shadows and stresses — whereby it’s never clear what’s “real” and what’s not, and maybe it all is, maybe the “performances” are just getting inside Oscar’s head all too heavily thus altering his actual life, and maybe it’s just a playful glimpse at the gradually changing roles we play in our day to day lives — makes it all a bit too “simple,” less abstract than its many whimsical points deserve. The ride itself is stunning visually and in most any other sense, but it makes the film feel like an unfinished episode of Night Gallery or some other anthology show. On the other hand, some moments — the chimp in particular, and also the closing scene of cars discussing their occupants — oversell their “wackiness” to the point of being actually kind of stupid. “Wacky” isn’t really funny in any context anymore, least of all a place like this in a movie that seems to wrestle with serious points about identity and fulfillment.

In other words, the movie as a whole is in fact less crazy, vibrant, and surreal than I wanted it to be, and frustrating more than anything (frustrating like Blow-Up was for me, with its “oh-wait-fuck-you” story dynamic) because a couple of sequences — stark and sad urban filmscape of memory and regret that ends with a gruesome suicide, or M. Merde causing joyously violent havoc in the streets, to name my two favorites — are delightful and resonant. But every time Carax finds some flight of fancy that seems to lift us up and dangle us alarmingly, he literalizes the enterprise. Let’s go back for just a moment to that thing about identity; I want Holy Motors to be about that stuff — or better yet, “about” nothing at all except its own inexplicable delights, but it never cuts loose enough to achieve that — but with the entrance of things like the mo-cap nonsense or the whole last twenty minutes or so, or indeed the central motif of the limo ride, it’s hard to avoid that it’s struggling violently to be about The Nature of Cinema — or no, not even that (because every film’s about that, right?), The Nature of Film Acting. Which may well be the most boring possible interpretation for all the interesting things that happen here.

You can actually use surrealism to tell a great story (see Buñuel, Belle de Jour) or to avoid narrative altogether and still retain the ability to shock and seduce (see Buñuel, L’Age d’Or). But the This-Is-What-It’s-Like-To-Be-A-Tortured-Workhorse-Actor plotline, such as it is, is gimmicky and glib and even a little condescending, with little but emptiness at its center thanks to its steadfast avoidance to make a full-bodied character of the irksomely named Oscar; it keeps changing its mind about who he is, quite deliberately, which would be fine if we weren’t apparently expected to come away with sympathy and affection for him. For all its ingenious elements, Holy Motors is half-baked. Little wonder, maybe, that it was initially a stopgap to give Carax time to prepare a project he was more passionate about; more bewildering that it subsequently became his most successful film to date.

Let me continue to reiterate: I am not dismissing a film that somehow finds time for battling dragons, munching flowers, chasing away innocent people and orally severing their fingers, peeling faces off, long walks down dark alleyways, and Kylie Minogue all in the same package; I would urge you, in fact, to see it if anything here sounds intriguing to you. There’s something exciting and delightful here for just about everyone, especially toward the beginning, but something’s missing. There are moments of joy, yes, but there’s never a sense that we are dancing with it, which is how a film with this structure should feel, or so it seems to me. There’s that rhythm in truly great films that largely disregard narrative convention in favor of poetry — even conservative ones like Breathless or Petulia or, gulp, The Seventh Seal — a certain flavorful (realizing that I overuse this word) exuberance that Holy Motors tempers with a strange, languid joylessness. It’s as though its greatest pleasures are only given to us through great labor and effort, which sadly only emphasizes the interpretation of its content that I would prefer not to be accurate.

You’re welcome to feel differently, of course, but if Holy Motors is saying what I think it’s saying — yeesh. At least it’s not just the American film industry that’s up its own ass, I guess. But bear this in mind: this film’s inspiring all sorts of spirited debate across the internet and undoubtedly in real-life circles about its overall meaning. Something is intended here — given its tone and format, it has to be — but it doesn’t have to gel completely with authorial intent. Perhaps it isn’t merely a movie about movies or a movie about performing but one about how life itself, in a rolling, breakneck chronology, amounts to a performance — marking time, waiting to go home, waiting to find real joy, waiting for something. I couldn’t tell you, but I can say that I have a lot of trouble reading it in a way that makes me less conflicted about it. Perhaps with time, it will feel less flat to me or I will come to relish its pure imagination without much thought to other matters; perhaps I will start to like feature-length declarative statements about the POWER of CINEMA rather than wanting to come by that sort of thing naturally — for the moment, I can’t really give a decisive opinion on this film. I do feel about the same as Carax about fashion photography, though.

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