When it comes to Holy Motors, I can confidently make two statements: I have no idea what I watched, and I absolutely loved it. In an age of hyperactive attention to coherence and plot development, a film like Holy Motors, which is completely and utterly off-the-wall insane and complex, is a breath of much needed fresh air.
I’d love to tell you what Holy Motors is about, but I am not entirely sure myself. All I know is that it stars Denis Lavant as Mister Oscar, a strange man who is driven around in a limousine, who spends his day putting on strange costumes and going on surreal adventures. If there was a point or coherent plot towards this film, it was completely lost on me – but I suspect Holy Motors is just that, an almost plotless film which is composed of several incredible strands of surrealism, thrown together by Leos Carax, a truly extraordinary filmmaker. I wish I could make sense of this film, but I really can’t, and maybe that’s for the best, because a film like Holy Motors doesn’t need to make sense – it just needs to be great, and I can honestly say without any hesitation, that Holy Motors is far more than just great – it is historically brilliant.
The first act of this film is absolutely delightful and sets the tone for the rest of the film – Mister Oscar is a mysterious man, driven around in his stretch limousine by his friend and confidante, Celine (Édith Scob). In his first “appointment”, he dresses up as a beggar woman and begs on the street, which is then followed by his second appointment, where he plays an actor in a motion capture performance. This is officially where this film begins to get weird, because the seeds of abstraction are sewn in this scene, and it launches this film into an off-the-wall, crazily intense surrealist fantasy.
In the third “appointment”, Monsieur Merde (returning from Carax’s segment in the film Tokyo!) emerges from the sewers and somehow manages to kidnap a supermodel. This scene, playing like a deranged Charlie Chaplin short film, is utterly disturbing, radically nonsensical and just plain brilliant, and it is perhaps the defining moment of this film – overly violent, very strange and weirdly riveting. This is followed by a performance where Oscar is a father driving his daughter home from a party. Denis Lavant is an actor known more for his bodily movements and adeptness at dance and miming rather than as a dramatic actor – and this segment (as does the whole film, but this one in particular) gives him some very juicy dramatic work to handle, and he does it incredibly well.
There is somewhat of an interlude in Holy Motors that I thought was the best moment of the entire film, and one of the most memorable cinematic moments of the year, where Oscar plays the accordion in an abandoned church with a coterie of musicians, all taking part in the joyfully melancholic moment. I have no idea what this scene meant, or what it contributed to the film as a whole (but I’m not sure about that in terms of any of the scenes, if we are being perfectly honest), I just know I loved it and it actually made me gasp in shock at how brilliant it was. It was a simple but unbelievably effective moment that proves that Leos Carax is a very underrated cinematic genius.
The second half of this film is just so offbeat and strange, it requires the viewer to either commit to the story, put on their seatbelt and go along for the ride, or just tune out and go one with their lives. Very rarely does a film require so much from the audience, but the second half of this film is just so utterly bizarre, and the film sometimes seems like it is spinning out of control. Nothing makes sense in this film, especially not after it descends into cinematic anarchy. I have no idea what Carax was trying to say here, ut all I do know is that it was utterly perfect in how it handled the sense of confusion that it was looking to introduce to the audience.
I mentioned it before, but Denis Lavant is a treasure of an actor – utterly unique in appearance and talent, he manages to do something extraordinary work, regardless of the size of the role. His performance as the lead character in Holy Motors is so memorable, and Lavant is just so damn good. He handles each and every character with the perfect amount of sympathy and strange behavior needed to make us care about these characters, even if we cannot get past the point that they are absolutely despicable and very bizarre, on nearly every level. Denis Lavant is an actor that needs mainstream appeal – he could easily become a solidly reliable character actor in American films. I certainly hope he does get more offers, but in the five years since Holy Motors came out, nothing much as materialized for him, which is a pity, because he is so good here.
Talking of absolute treasures, Édith Scob is also in this film, in a considerably large role, playing the dedicated and kind-hearted best friend and driver of Lavant’s character. Scob is just so talented, and her presence throughout this film is both comforting and unsettling, and makes me wonder why Scob never acquired mainstream appeal either, because she is so good here, and her final moment in this film is the creepiest ending I have ever seen in a film, and for those who know Scob from her iconic performance in Eyes Without a Face, there is a reference that is just for us that left me both reeling in fascination and shivering in utter shock.
Holy Motors is a great film. There isn’t much to say about it, because it is more of an experience than a film. It is superbly written, beautifully directed and marvelously acted. It is a memorable film that is one of the best entries in the surrealism canon. Leos Carax is just so brilliant and he needs to make more films, but only if they are on this level. Holy Motors is not a film for everyone – but for those who do dare watch it, you won’t be sorry, because despite being almost nonsensical and strange, without plot or story, it is still a brilliant piece of cinema and one of the more original pieces I’ve seen in a long while. Watch it, I dare you.