Holy Motors Movie Review

Featuring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Cordelia Piccoli, Elise Lhommeau
Director: Leos Carax
Writer: Leos Carax
Australian release date: 23 August 2012
Review 1: rolanstein
Review 2: Karen

Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) is a thespian in curious employment – by whom and to what end is unclear. He works from dawn to dusk, chaffeured by his driver Céline (Édith Scob) to various appointments around Paris in the back of a white stretch limo. En route preceding each appointment, he reads briefs on the character he is to play, then through elaborate makeup and costuming expertly crafts his appearance accordingly. We follow him on nine appointments, during which his characters include computer game ninja and alien sex prototype, captain of industry, hitman, beggar, graveyard monster and sewer dweller, family man…

Test: pick which character…

The curious thing – well, one of them – is that Oscar seems to be a player without an audience, infusing himself into Parisian locales populated with ordinary folk passing by, or collaborating with other actors (?) playing roles in pre-devised scenarios, but without a camera in sight (other than those on which the film is shot – obviously – which remain invisible: there is no fourth wall stuff going on here). Hmmm…

Review 1: (rolanstein)
If you think the synopsis sounds whacked out, you’d be right. But it’s nothing compared with the experience of sitting through this movie!

And truth to tell, that’s what you’ll need to do if you wanna know more. A competent movie review should give the reader some idea of what to expect of a film and whether it’s likely to appeal to them. Any review of Holy Motors is going to fall short because this is essentially a movie experience, untranslatable into any other mode. So, bang goes my usual strategy of assessing the dramatic fundamentals – plot, theme, pacing, exposition, characterisation etc – in much the same terms as might be applied to a work of literature. This flick doesn’t work in that way.

Some might claim it doesn’t work at all. And it’s a case that could easily be made. The nine vignettes that make up the movie are seemingly unrelated in terms of narrative or theme. So forget notions of beginning, middle, end. It’s questionable, even, whether some of the vignettes themselves are structured thus. The shortest one, for example, only a few minutes in duration, in which Monsieur Oscar is cast as a hunched old crone dressed in rags and begging on the streets, seems to be little else than a fleeting ode to misery. Come to that, none of the sketches are cheery – and all are bizarre! I’m inclined to abandon my search for elements of coherence right here. It’s not the point, really.

So what is? Well, for me, that for all its deranged meanderings, apparent incoherence, and confounding kaleidoscopic imaginative excursions into dark realms of the grotesque, Holy Motors is constantly intriguing, completely unpredictable and – miraculously – never boring. That’s what saves it. It might be incoherent, impossible to pin down, stark raving nuts even, but it’s entertaining and a compelling ride from go to whoa, and that’s some feat for a piece as unhinged and flapping free as this.

Monsieur Oscar, lumpy with stick-on infrared receptors, gets ready for a gig as animation model

As with Greenaway, Carax might justly be accused of self-indulgence, of pretentiousness, of wilful ‘originality’, of arrogance in paying no mind to the viewer in striving for liberation, both of form and in quest of self-expression. Unlike with Greenaway’s stuff, however, which I DO find boring and unbearably so, there is no sense of directorial self-importance or smug artistic elitism here. Indeed, there is more than a hint of a trash aesthetic in Holy Motors.

And a sort of dramatic democratisation, in which the viewer is invited to make their own meaning of the material before them, rather than having to strive to interpret a smartarse director painfully conscious of his sophistication and erudition, and presenting a world of allusion and riddle to which only hyper-educated initiates and fanatical cinephiles can gain entry. Rather than embed clues in his work for clever dicks to hunt down, Carax gives his creative spirit free reign, content to go wheresoever it should lead – a recipe for disaster more often than not!

Carax is doing what he damn well pleases as a filmmaker (well, within a limited budget – the film was done for a meagre €3.9 million), but he’s not taking himself too seriously (thankfully!). There’s a mischievous playfulness at the heart of the film, a winking at the audience, that is quite endearing. eg: Monsieur Oscar rounds a corner, temporarily out of shot, but when the camera catches up he is gone. Why? No reason. And there is no explanatory follow-up, just a cut to the next scene. Hahaha. Gotcha!

Tonally, the work is all over the place, moving from possible social comment (the old woman in rags reduced to a life of begging), to schlock (the monster in the graveyard with an appetite for, variously, a woman’s fingers, hair torn off a photographic model with his teeth, and headstone flowers), to an assassination that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie, to garaged stretch limos that talk to each other once humans have retired for the night like toys in kids’ fantasy movies, to an unaccountably moving chance encounter with an ex-lover.

This last is a dream-like sequence that features Kylie Minogue as the ex. I’m no Kylie fan, but I have to give her her dues: she is faultless during her short appearance, an inspired casting choice. And a song she performs, Who Were We?, which was written for the film by Carax and Neil Hannon, is an emotional high point. Not that there are many of those!

Madame Minogue does wooden superbly…

I don’t imagine there is going to be a large audience for Holy Motors. Some of the review crowd walked out. Many will find it too demanding. But I reckon it’s worth a look. I haven’t seen anything like it, and while that in itself is no recommendation, it’s refreshing to encounter filmmaking that stretches the boundaries and dares to be as different as this while remaining entertaining. It’s the first time I’ve walked out of a flick baffled as to what it was all about, without seething or feeling short-changed. And I’ve continued to think about it ever since, without necessarily getting anywhere useful. Take a punt and try it on for yourself.

Review 2: (Karen)
I’ve been paying particular attention to opening sequences of films lately. They often signpost the subject or theme of a film, and for the second time this year – the first was The Artist – the subject is the filmmaking process itself.

The sequence shown first up in Holy Motors is an early cinematograph of human movement, watched by an immobile cinema audience. Now we see our hero Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) awake as from a dream – or perhaps he is still in it – and break out from his bedroom, using a prosthetic finger/key, to view the cinema, while an animated child advances along the aisle, followed by a huge, benign beast.

Where do we stand as the (second) audience here? We’re clearly in the realm of dreams, and it’s also clear this film will be about film and our perception of it.
Whereas The Artist had a story to tell, Holy Motors has a thesis to explicate. It does this through the device of M. Oscar, who has a number of assignments to fulfill throughout a day. He is picked up by his chauffeur, Celine (Edith Scob), who in typically wacky French fashion has been smoking while waiting for M. Oscar to appear, and nonchalantly discards her cigarette butt in the driveway when he does.

Behind the mask lurks a Gallic cigarette litterbug

M. Oscar, we eventually realise, is an actor who in the course of the day assumes a number of roles: a beggar, an assassin, a model for animation, and more; and he plays his assigned roles with increasing fatigue and despair – not helped by his wacky French habit of relentlessly smoking during and in between ‘takes’. The problem is clear: Oscar, in each of his assigned roles, dresses, speaks, moves, emotes, and relates to others deeply and sincerely, and then must move on. He is variously benevolent, murderous or murdered, flawed, and even mad. And here’s the rub for this film: just as the bitty nature of his interrelation with others makes it hard for him to feel he has a fulfilled life, so does this make it hard for the audience to engage with his plight, and with the entire film.

Put simply, I didn’t give a damn about Oscar. Who was he anyway? (There’s a sadly obvious answer here that examination of the director’s name will suggest.) Two sequences suggested a real engagement, one with a horrendously wooden Kylie Minogue playing another actor whom he had known twenty years previously, and a second with another actor, Elise (Elise Lhomeau), whom he hopes to encounter again after their moving deathbed scene. Well, it was moving for them – I felt a bit like the audience first encountered in the opening sequence: unmoved, possibly asleep.

There is the suggestion of metaphor in the film. An explicit complaint, that Oscar is nostalgic for a time when the technological paraphernalia of cinematography was large, implies that the invisibility and potential of modern image making devices are changing the experience of films both for makers and consumers. Simple ‘action’ is no longer enough; audiences expect enhancement. Ultimately the boundaries between film and lived life blur. Oscar’s long day of acting roles is his life, but the parts do nothing but drain him physically and emotionally. Shame he didn’t play a role as an oncologist or epidemiologist, though – he might have learned something.

So. A thesis about film does not necessarily make a good film. The explication of that thesis is not well served by a film that seems to deliberately obscure its significance with weird sequences. What are we to make, for example, of the assignment where Oscar becomes a madman who emerges from the sewers into Pere Lachaise cemetery, kidnaps a model from a photo shoot there and refashions her garments into a burka before stripping naked and being soothed to sleep by her lullaby? Or of the chauffeur, Celine, who puts on a theatrical neutral mask to go home after parking the limo at the garage of the title? The constant question, ‘WTF!’ might keep you watching, but doesn’t quite constitute narrative interest.

Sewer monster with model

And to suggest that audiences, once enthralled by simple ‘moving pictures’, now expect enhanced action and extraordinary special effects, and then serve up a film that lays bare the human involvement in (and toll of) these things, instead of a truly engaging alternative, seems a bit querulous.

Leos Carax is clearly a skilled filmmaker and film lover, but this self-referential work will leave all but the hardiest of cinephiles cold.

Leos Carax – guilty as charged, deranged auteur, or just kiddin’…?

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6 thoughts on “Holy Motors Movie Review”

  1. Hmm, Kylie, “faultless” or “wooden”?! Clearly we read this one differently!
    I reckon it’s a triumph of form over function, a well made film that is largely unintelligible. Yes, there’s interest and even pleasure in admiring how well made it is, and even in wondering what the hell it’s all about, but in the end it’s a bit like admiring the dovetails and finish on a bit of furniture that you can’t sit on or store wine in. A few men and the odd dog will love it; not my dog, he’s a bit thick.

  2. Greetings, Karen. Good to have some real divergence with this one. I like your take, BTW, worlds apart from mine though it be. You present a well-argued case.

    That said, we’re never going to find much common ground, I suspect. From your review, I take it that your initial interpretation of the film as a meta-cinematic investigation/meditation informed your entire experience of the film – and I can see how and why.

    Thing is, mine was a naive viewing; thus, I think I was open to whatever was served up – as long as the demands placed upon me to accommodate the weirdness and eccentricities didn’t become tedious. They didn’t. I went along for the ride, and a wild and woolly one it was, spitting me out at the end dazed and confused, but high on the rush and glad of the experience.

    I don’t agree that this was a triumph of form over function. I think you’re selling it short. My interest and pleasure, to use your terms, was nothing to do with the excellence of the filmmaker’s crafting, either. I’m not sure I even agree that it was particularly well made. It was more the imaginative abandon of the piece that I got off on. And the moods and tonal undulations. Which brings me to Kylie.

    Sure she was wooden (I was going to remark in my review on her not having to stretch much as an actor to achieve this, but decided it was a cheap shot), but the way I saw that sequence, that was entirely appropriate. There was a dream-like quality about her and the sequence generally – she was supposed to be ghost-like, a visitation from M. Oscar’s past that had arrived too late for anything to come of it. The embers had all but died, leaving only a nostalgia that had nowhere to go. The Kylie character embodied that. She was finished with life – hence her subsequent action, when the current lover she had tired of arrived. The last sputtering of the flame was the song, Who Were We, which was full of pathos and yearning for possibilities and selves lost or never realised, which I thought came through her vocal rendition quite remarkably. I don’t rate her in the slightest as a singer, but I thought she handled the song about as well as it could have been done in the context of the film. Were you really not struck at all by the emotional power of that song?

    I guess not. I don’t expect you will relate to any of that. It’s clear we were watching from completely different angles.

    I’m interested in your response to my “dramatic democratisation” comment. I have found myself imposing meaning in retrospect on various images and sections of the film (eg: the ape family members that Oscar returns to at the end of his long day). I can’t help suspecting that Carax meant the film to remain open to multiple interpretations. And on this, another major point of difference between us: you see it as meta-cinema, whereas I am inclined to see it only partly as that, and more broadly as a comment on the nature of art and the artist – and inner and outer identity.

    I’ve chucked enough out there for now, so will wait for any comments from you in response before expanding further. Specifically, though, any thoughts on the ape aspect?


  3. Glad you liked it, rolanstein! I didn’t really hate it entirely, but I found it very unsatisfactory on the whole,
    I quite liked the song, but found it confusing. Presumably the lyrics were meant to tell us something about their past history, but it was all a bit hard to judge. M. Oscar has moved on, married and had children since then – or was that first location, where the children bade him farewell as he headed off to work, also a role? And the Kylie-character’s suicide: I have no idea if that was meant to be her death, or a scripted, fake one. Or both. My companion on the day thought Kylie was supposed to be wooden: as you read it, drained of the ability to feel real emotion. Either way, intended or not, it made it hard for me to find the scene itself moving.
    No, I don’t think that Carax was intending to make a film for people to interpret at will, although I assume he would be happy for them to do so. I think he has a clear thesis; whether he has articulated it satisfactorily is my criticism.
    The scene with the chimps is an example. Is it a nod to other famous films like 2001 A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and a reminder to us that we are animals, primates maybe, but still animals that no amount of sophisticated technology can change the nature of? Or just another instance of what this poor bastard actor has to go through to earn a buck and entertain us? I must admit I laughed, though, because I’d thought that the actor Denis Lavant’s face is a bit simian! But I also groaned when he stubbed out his cigarette on the porch. Dude! Someone’s going to have to sweep that up!

  4. Re: “No, I don’t think that Carax was intending to make a film for people to interpret at will, although I assume he would be happy for them to do so. I think he has a clear thesis; whether he has articulated it satisfactorily is my criticism.”

    So, Karen, here we depart in our perceptions, and I think this difference more or less explains the divergence in our views on the film. You’ve probably already articulated it in your review, but just so I can be clear on your thinking, what, exactly, is this clear thesis you’re attributing to Carax?

    Right with you on being in two minds as to whether the Kylie character’s jump was yet another enacted mini-drama or ‘real’. That uncertainty runs throughout the film and is one of the elements that I found most fascinating (albeit a bit frustrating). This goes to the heart of my take on the movie re changing identities, also. The old onion skin thing…peel off one layer and there’s always another beneath. Keep peeling and where do you arrive? That might also apply to the creative process – and the engagement of the viewer in that! Good lawd – where does one stop? Somewhere outside the film, which is a vehicle to other places if you tend to get carried away with your post-viewing analysis, as I sometimes do.

    And is poor ol’ Oscar really back with his ape family at the end of his long and exhausting day, or is this just another acting gig?

    On the apes, yes, those allusions to other films you mention occurred to me, also. As did the unsatisfying notion that Carax was merely being bizarre for its own sake in service of pushing to constantly surprise his audience. But in the end, I settled on something very close to your ‘reminder to us that we are animals, primates maybe, but still animals that no amount of sophisticated technology can change the nature of?’. So close that it’s barely worth expanding, but I will. I thought the apes represented basic community, the bedrock of family that provides security, where you can finally ‘be yourself’ and be accepted for whoever that is – unless, of course, you’re a Monsieur Oscar, doomed to serve your muse, who must remain outside, and for whom the game of observer and role-player never ends.

    I read the donning of the mask, literally, by the chauffeur Céline, when she leaves her job to return to her private life as a jolting tilt at corporate figures and the like – people over-committed to their work roles – whose meaningful investment in life stops at the end of the working day. Unlike Oscar, she has a choice, and she chooses to mask her self. That wilful self-denial is the greatest tragedy of all, and one that befalls most of the human world.

    But enough for now.

  5. “What, exactly, is this clear thesis you’re attributing to Carax?” Well, duh, rolanstein, if I thought he’d explicated it clearly enough, I’d be able to tell you!
    Just kidding; I thought I’d explained my understanding of it in my review. I reckon he’s going on about the changing nature of film and audience expectations; the actor’s job; the blurring of boundaries between the lived life and depicted narrative in a variety of genres; and the inability of those wacky French to understand some basic health science and hygiene conventions. Oh, no, he didn’t go on about that last thing, that was me.

    Did I tell you how much I like your picture captions!!!

  6. OK, clear. And ta re the pic captions!

    Yeah, as I commented earlier, you’ve presented a well-argued case for your take on the movie. I think you’re probably a lot closer than I to Carax’s intentions, but IMO that doesn’t preclude the wider meanings that I’ve read into it.

    That said, like you with the “wacky French” fag-discarding-related conventions, there was doubtless plenty of me and my projections in my reading of this one. While I plead guilty to overstating my case re “dramatic democratisation”, I do maintain that a broader interpretation such as mine was possible – and perhaps invited – due to a deliberately built-in enigmatic quality that gives the piece some ambivalence and works against it being pinned down. And I think that is a strength, and necessary, because it gives the audience more to chew on.

    Enjoyable discussion.

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