Holy Motors was a fixture of 2012’s Top 10 lists; a critics’ darling. As a consequence, anyone who doesn’t fall for its charms runs the risk of being labelled a philistine (or “une philistine”, perhaps). I could claim relief that I did like it, although I’ve never had much compunction about dismissing arty pretentiousness as arty pretentiousness when I see it. A significant portion of Holy Motors is arty pretentiousness, but a fair amount of it is also genuinely quite clever, interesting, entertaining and amusing (all of this with the caveat of “probably”; it might all be a crock). I didn’t fall for it hook, line and sinker and I wasn’t enraptured (there’s a point where wilfully obtuse works all begin to look the same) but I was diverted.
To indicate my lack of devotion to the difficult career of cineaste Leos Carax, the only previous of his pictures I recall seeing is Les amants du Pont-Neuf. Which was unfortunate enough to arrive at a time when the presence of Juliette Binoche in any non-English language film seemed obligatory. It was a difficult, expensive, picture to make, and one that hastened Carax’s disappearance from cinemas only to return with a widely derided film (Pola X). This is his first full-length feature since, although it is comprised of a collection of linked vignettes. They are united by the limo journey of actor Oscar (Denis Lavant) from appointment to appointment. At each stop Oscar adopts a different guise and a different form of expression (of genre?) This is one of those films that invites wildly divergent interpretations, in part because the filmmaker himself may not be quite sure what he is saying.
The Guardian celebrated it as “a scattershot thesis on the nature of performance”. As Holy Motors’ apparent dissection of the apparatus of filmmaking (coming from a director who started out writing for Cahiers du Cinema), this seems like a rather too literal, superficial, interpretation. If that is all it is about, then maybe its pretensions are just that. The paraphernalia of movie making is a constant presence, the director himself appearing in the first scene, and the picture takes in everything from the nuts and bolts of performance-capture to gangster films, deathbed tragedy, and musicals. But that surely isn’t what the picture is really about. Lead actor Lavant referred to it as “a poetic declaration of love for mankind today” but Carax was dismissive of such a take.
The director reluctantly claims Holy Motors as “a parable of human relationships in the internet age” (that would be the heavy-handed gravestones with website addresses on them, then; a profound visual metaphor there, Leos), and “the fatigue of being oneself… The answer is to reinvent oneself”. Which makes him sound like a right old misery guts. But there’s a sense in this picture that the director is at play; while his Oscar (winner?) enters each scene whole-heartedly, there is little sense of the truly threatening in even the most disturbed scenario. Moments recall David Lynch (the bedroom wall the director walks through, or the confrontation with his doppelganger) or Cronenberg (the womb-like limo from which the protagonist emerges periodically can’t help but seem similar to another 2012 picture, Cosmopolis) but Carax doesn’t get under your skin the way those to two do. Maybe it’s because this meditation is so obtuse, or maybe it’s because the form itself is distancing; our involvement in the onscreen happenings is ephemeral, and without ultimate consequence (so cinema as a metaphor for cinema, then?)
Oscar is driven around by his chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob). At each stop, Oscar disembarks, assuming a new guise. He is an old woman begging. Then an actor in a performance-capture suit on a sound stage, entering an erotic entanglement of PVC and lights with a statuesque “co-star” as their actions are reinterpreted in Gigeresque CGI form. Most distractingly, he becomes a feral ginger fiend in emerald suit with a voracious appetite for any substance in proximity to his mouth; he consumes wreaths, money, hair and fingers. And then reveals his stiffy (much less coyly than Pacino’s in Stand Up Guys). He also wipes blood on Eva Mendes’ armpit.
As a father, Oscar remonstrates his daughter for not having a good time at party or flinging herself at boys (it’s a cute inversion, see?) before embarking on a rousing accordion interlude through a cathedral. Then there’s that Lynchian murder in a warehouse, where he and his quarry are one and the same. A man appears in his limo to whom Oscar opines “some don’t believe in what they’re watching any more”. Off again, he murders a banker (the same banker Oscar “plays” at the start of the film, when he is first picked up). There follows a deathbed tragedy, where both parties must cut short their doomy foreplay to leave for appointments. Following this, Oscar’s limo is involved in an unscheduled altercation with another limo carrying Kylie Minogue. Who breaks into song about how “we once had a child”. She is there to meet a lover (leading to not-a-little strawberry jam). Oscar’s final appointment takes him “home” to a family of apes, while Celine returns the limo to the Holy Motors depot. After she leaves, masked, the assembled cars begin talking to each other.
What to make of it all? Perhaps Holy Motors is all in the eye of the beholder. This doesn’t strike me as a picture demanding onion-like layers of unpeeled readings, but you know that it will receive them anyway. There is a hypnotic abandon in viewing the antic appointments unfold.
Right from the first scene, the director is there, apparently confused by the sight of an undiscerning theatre audience with their eyes shut. They aren’t even paying attention. Why are they sleeping through the art over which he sweats blood (does Carax demand readings of his resistant movies, to satisfy his intellectual reflexes)? Those undiscerning fools! There is even a sense that this level of arthouse impenetrability, where even the director isn’t sure what it’s all about, is willing the viewer to dismiss it. Then the auteur can return to the seclusion of his ivory tower safe in the knowledge that no one understands. If so, Carax failed this time.
The critics took the bait, never keen to be labelled dumb. Which isn’t to say this is some kind of emperor’s new clothes, but I’d be lying if I professed to understand it’s very essence. This is the kind of picture Monty Python would have done a sterling job sending up if they were still together (perhaps Fellini fan Gilliam can do a special bit for their stage show) and, if Holy Motors didn’t possess a vibrant sense of humour (albeit a very dark one), all might be lost in a wasteland of obscure surrealism and fractured social commentary. One wonders if it really wants to be analysed. The film may be more content to be just “weird and interesting” than to be examined thoroughly for untold depths and found to come up short.
So this is what occurred to me. Each day, a guardian angel ushers a human out on his life’s (lives) journey(s) (a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage). This human is filled with increasing weariness and distance from why he is actually doing any of this at all; life has become only about meeting prescribed appointments and its greater purpose is lost. Every night, the limo returns to the heavenly vault (Holy Motors Inc.) and every day the process starts anew. It might be a metaphor for reincarnation. Perhaps the final appointment is a suggestion that we have devolved, no longer able to distinguish our automatic responses from the instinctive behaviour of the apes from which we are descended? A kind of reverse-Kubrick.
Maybe. Probably not. Had this picture come out forty years ago, most likely no one would have blinked an eye. But Carax’s cogitations feel like a rarity now. Perhaps that is partly the point. His film is a chin-stroker’s delight, of which there are fewer extreme cases today. I am less than convinced it is hugely profound, yet it is striking, and slightly crazed, and appealingly demented. And Denis Lavant is an amazing actor, even if his director doesn’t think all that much of his film analysis skills.