It’s okay. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Holy Motors is going to be a movie you might not completely understand, I mean, I barely think I do. It’s a movie that opens with the writer/director (Leos Carax) opening a hidden door with his finger, which is a key, to a dreamlike cinema, and it only gets stranger from there. This is a film with the best no-sex sex scene, the best no-action action scene, Kylie Minogue, at least two minutes of an erect penis, and a conversation between limos. The film is most impressive not just because of how crazy and inventive it is but because it manages to be emotional too. There’s a thick layer of romanticism on top of all the insanity.
After the director’s prologue, the film follows Denis Lavant as Monsieur Oscar. Lavant is shuttled from one assignment to the next by his chauffer Celine (Edith Scob). His “assignments” are kind of like acting jobs. In his white limo he prepares for each new part, putting on makeup and costumes, and then he goes out into the world and performs for an audience of no one. In one scenario he’s an old woman begging for change, in another a dying old man. I realize by describing elements within the film it undoubtedly sounds unappetizing, but this is no half-baked student film.
Structurally, the movie unfolds like a string of short films with Lavant playing the lead in each one. In the middle there’s a wonderful music video intermission that is totally random and easily one of my favorite things in recent cinema history. Motors is a parade of dreams, non-sequiturs, reality bending, and stream-of-consciousness filmmaking. It hits high levels of joy and then wrecks your soul before reminding you that everything you’re watching is a lie. It’s about artificiality, performance, and perception. It’s also about growing weary with your own art. The film is overflowing with ideas but they never drown out the pleasure of each moment.
Denis Lavant, greatness is thy name. The man is a chameleon. He disappears into no fewer than 11 distinct roles, plus a few doppelgangers. In each part he is reborn, there are no caricatures here. And while he seemingly becomes a new person every 10 minutes, there is still a sense of his core persona. There’s a constant presence, a restless spirit. But even that could be bullshit because right when you think you’ve figured the film out, right when you’re sure of its internal logic, the film zigs when you think it’ll zag. It reminded me of the audition scene in Mulholland Drive and Club Silencio from the same film mixed with Godard’s sense of anarchy and Fellini’s circus staging.
I’m sure it could be dismissed as pretentious nonsense, but it’s the kind of nonsense I can get behind. It’s engaging even if not easily understood. It’s limitless but not daunting. It’s a piece born of frustration that led to an inspired redefining of cinema’s possibilities while staving off self-destruction. Adapt or die, and blow your mind while doing so.