HOLY MOTORS (2012)
Written and directed by Leos Carax
Les Films du Losange, 115 minutes, Unrated (nudity, violence, degrading imagery)
Among the things one can depend upon in life is that most films nominated for a Palme d’Or are those that critics praise and audiences ignore. Many of them attract critical praise because they pay homage to cinema’s past. Among the film references in Holy Motors are: Eyes without a Face, Boy Meets Girl, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tokyo! and three of Carax’s previous offerings. If you’re like most folks, none of these will resonate and Carax’s internal clues will be lost on you. This begs the question of whether it’s homage to reference idiosyncratic films almost no one has seen. But the problem with Holy Motors isn’t idiosyncrasy; it’s inconsistency.
If you give Holy Motors a try, pay attention to its enigmatic opening, one in which a sleeping man (Carax) awakens, opens a secret door in his apartment, and enters a crowded theater in which a silent audience is viewing King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928). The character, called simply “le dormeur” is likely a reference to an Arthur Rimbaud poem in which a sleeping soldier is, in fact, dead—akin to the zombie-like audience in the theater and the stripped-of-vitality characters in Vidor’s film.
Holy Motors is an existential dream in which individuals so desperately yearn for sensations to ameliorate their ennui that they will pay handsomely for temporary relief. Would you like to be murdered by your own doppelganger? (Or is the id killing the superego?) Enjoy the adrenaline rush of a spray of bullets disrupting the tranquility of an outdoor café? Have hot foreplay with beings dressed as latex-clad aliens? What does it take to make you feel authentically alive? For a price, Holy Motors and Mr. Oscar (Denis Levant) will act out your fantasies privately, or in front of a shocked public. Oscar rides through Paris in the back of a white limo and transforms himself into various characters while Céline (Edith Scob) drives.
Holy Motors isn’t really a movie; it’s numerous short films loosely strung together by the limo rides. It means, of course, that the quality of the sections varies greatly in quality and interest. Eve Mendes plays Kay M, a supermodel filming in Pere Lachaise Cemetery and bored with the fawning syncophants of the high fashion world. Enter Mr. Oscar disguised as a hideous, deformed, filthy, hunchback who kidnaps her, carries her to an underground lair where he strips naked and lies on her lap, soiling her designer gown—his erection prominently displayed. Oddly, this is one of the more compelling story lines, simply because it’s so grotesque it’s hard not to watch. (I later learned that this is a recreation of the role of Monsieur Merde (Mr. Shit) from an obscure 2006 Japanese film.) And this isn’t even the weirdest segment of the film. That honor goes to one in which Mr. Oscar shows up playing power accordion in an MTV-like graveyard death video with Kylie Minogue! Among his other roles are as a homeless woman, a dying old man, and a grubby failed father driving his teenaged daughter across town, and we can’t tell for sure if she is virgin or vixen.
As you can imagine, a little bit of angst goes a long way and Holy Motors runs out of gas long before Mr. Oscar’s long day ends. The film’s overarching message is that most people are dead long before they die and, like the faux Minogue video, actual expiration is a celebratory relief. Okay…. So is Carax’s film profound, or just two hours of juvenile drivel hiding amidst a shallow surface of affected intellectualism? My take is that it’s a bit of both, and that overall it’s more clever than deep. Carax is often visually interesting, but the walking dead topic has been taken up in far better movies (including The Crowd). Should you give Holy Motors a spin? You could certainly live happily ever after without it but, if your curiosity is piqued, keep the remote in your hand as there is certainly no reason to sit through segments that lose their allure. Trust me—lots of the film will have precious little. –Rob Weir