(2012) Written and directed by Leos Carax; Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can’t see them at all.” – Mr. Oscar
Aside from the knowledge that I was in for a strange viewing experience, I made it a point to avoid learning much about Holy Motors in advance. In retrospect, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. It’s a disorienting film that demands to be watched and re-watched – a puzzle with pieces never intended to fit together perfectly, but somewhat askew. Writer/director Leos Carax’s first feature-length movie in over a decade follows the chameleon-like Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he rides around Paris in his chauffeur-driven limousine, adopting one identity after another. He changes in and out of makeup and various personas while flipping through the dossiers of different individuals.
Holy Motors is full of surprises around every corner, anchored by Lavant’s remarkable, multi-faceted performance. As the aptly named Merde, a sewer-dwelling troglodyte, he stomps through a graveyard, munching on flowers and pushing aside anyone who gets in his way, accompanied to the strains of Akira Ifukube’s rousing Godzilla score. In another scene, Lavant appears in a motion capture suit – two bodies engage in an erotic embrace, accompanied by their similarly entwined CGI avatars. Later, he assumes the identity of a father picking up his teenage daughter from a party. He punishes her for deceiving him, with the admonishment that she remains herself. His day begins and ends with very different families, promising that he’s destined to begin the cycle again, only with a whole new set of characters to inhabit.
The peripheral characters in Mr. Oscar’s life provide a few cryptic cues to the bigger picture. He runs into an old flame, Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue), and they enjoy a brief interlude between appointments. Eva sings the plaintive song, “Who Were We?” – an ode to their lost past and uncertain future. The other major player in Holy Motors is Oscar’s laconic chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob). She clearly cares for her charge, but seems determined to keeping him at arms’ length. In an affectionate nod to Eyes Without a Face, Scob appears in a mask resembling the one she wore half a century ago, still as graceful and ethereal as ever.
What does it all mean? The events in Holy Motors were probably never intended to be taken literally. Shakespeare probably said it best when he wrote, “all the world’s a stage.” The roles Mr. Oscar occupies are a metaphor for the many faces that each of us wear throughout our day. We appear differently to our families than to our friends, lovers and business associates. With many more limos roaming the streets, each presumably with their own Mr. Oscar counterparts, replete with stories of their own, it’s implied we’re only watching the tip of the iceberg. We’re playing out our respective parts, governed by the cosmic machinery. Mr. Oscar’s lament about the size of the cameras provides another ambiguous clue to the nature of his world. Everything is being recorded at all times. Nothing is intimate. By self-consciously putting on an act for the benefit of others, he’s losing his grip with reality. His encounters with others like himself beg the question, who are the actors and who is the audience? He professes his love for “the beauty of the act,” but then poses the question, “what if there’s no beholder?”
Mr. Oscar remains an enigmatic figure, which will likely make Holy Motors a polarizing experience for those who might be looking for solace from easy answers and pat resolutions. It’s easy to see how the film could be dismissed as pretentious nonsense, but that would be overlooking its many inherent charms. Carax’s film resides in that sweet spot, somewhere between incoherence and profundity. You need look no further than the vintage Muybridge clips of bodies in motion, bracketing several scenes, to understand this film is merely a part of a greater legacy. Like the limousines perpetually roving the city streets, we’re all moving about in the dark, hoping to make a connection, if only for one brief moment.