Holy Motors

Holy Motors (2012)
★ / ★★★★

It is a most misleading sight when Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) walks away from a lavish home as kids stand on rooftops to greet him good morning. The closer he gets to the white limousine, our expectation that he is off to work–most likely business-related due to his attire–is solidified. The assumption that M. Oscar is on his way to a job is correct. The nature of his work, however, is an entirely different breed, the kind that changes every few hours. Today, M. Oscar has nine “appointments,” according to Céline (Edith Scob), the limo driver. Each one requires that he looks and acts different–all of which depend on the needs of the client.

“Holy Motors” is an infuriating, would-be cerebral experience. Although it has plenty of imagination, it sacrifices cohesion and reason for sake of being different. As a result, we sit through so-called appointments that do not make any sense, from M. Oscar resembling a leprechaun (sans the hat) who eats flowers in the cemetery to playing a dying old man in a hotel bed who gets a chance to exchange last words with a woman. The film comes off desultory than dream-like, pretentious than thought-provoking.

Perhaps the intention is to criticize the state of modern film, how each genre has become cripplingly repetitious and stale. After all, the first scene consists of a blind man breaking through a wall and onto a movie theater. The wall, as cliché as it is, works as a metaphor for the limitations that writers and filmmakers create for themselves and therefore their work. Most importantly, it suggests that there is a wall between films and viewers that goes unbroken or unchallenged far too often.

If such is the case, the picture needs to stand on its own and be better than its targets. Since the film is neither this nor that and yet it attempts to be everything, it does not work. It fails to do anything particularly memorable with each assignment. Take M. Oscar playing a beggar in the streets of Paris as an example. While it is a good physical performance, the character is created and disposed of so quickly. There is not enough time for us to get acclimated, ask questions, and really think about what is happening.

Lavant proves in the zone in embodying each character but since the screenplay by Leos Carax does not give us the necessary time to be engaged with what is going on in its universe, the performance is, in many ways, cheapened as well as weakened in terms of emotional impact. With each make-up and costume change, there is a dramatic physical transformation but I never got past the fact that the actor is acting. It is a shame because if the material had been less insular and self-important, it would have been a visual feast as well as a force worthy of challenging our minds.

At least the cinematography is more welcoming. I enjoyed the sights of Paris especially at night and the way the camera follows M. Oscar as he turns into and around corners. But a way a picture looks rarely makes up for its (equally) important deficiencies. A movie may have good visuals but if it all feels hollow, as is the case here, the experience feels not unlike watching an amateur street performance.

Some are quick to make foolish claims that “Holy Motors,” directed by Leos Carax, is a love letter to movie lovers. This is a most unwarranted and outrageous assertion because the film is dead cold toward us. Just because a film is “artsy” or strives to be very different, does not mean it is good. While it does inspire curiosity, it is not thrilling, funny, heart-wrenching, or scary. It does not give us a sense of wonder either. What good is a film if we sit there expressionless?

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