EUFF Review: 'Holy Motors'

Holy Motors
(France/Germany, 115 min.)
Written and directed by Léos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, Michel Piccoli.
Denis Lavant and Kylie Minogue. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
If Holy Motors were an American film, we would all be calling it shit. However, it’s a French co-pro, so we call it art instead. Audacious, grotesque, and utterly nonsensical, Holy Motors is the most European art film you’ll see all year. It’s cracked-out madness, so just accept the ridiculousness of it all and go along for the ride.

The ride of the film is a swanky white stretch limousine. A distant cousin of Cosmopolis, Léos Carax’s Holy Motors spends much of its running time within the closed quarters of its protagonist’s limousine. Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) doesn’t have the same cork-lined stretch that Eric Packer uses to block out the sounds of life. Oscar’s ride doesn’t have a toilet, either, so he must frequently go do his business in the noisy streets of Paris.

 The film begins with a refined Mr. Oscar leaving what seems to be his tightly guarded mansion for a ride to work in his private car. Like Cosmopolis, it shows one day in the life of this powerful man as he is driven around town. His chauffer, Céline (Edith Scob, Summer Hours), tells him that he has nine appointments that day, so he best get ready. M. Oscar shrugs and starts to prepare; however, his appointment isn’t conventional business. Instead of pulling out his Blackberry and studying some notes, Oscar puts on a wig and hunches up like an old woman.

Oscar’s appointments continue to be a series of bizarre episodes. He might be panhandling as an elderly lady, or be disguised as a grungy dwarf while he licks the armpit of an Amy Winehouse lookalike (played by Eva Mendes). He also kills people, one of whom is himself. See? Holy Motors is madness, firing six cylinders of insanity at 100 kilometers per hour.

There isn’t a single pretense to realism in the chaos that Carax throws at the viewer. Whether it’s a random musical sequence, a dramatic skit, or a visually stunning sequence of motion capture pornography, Holy Motors consistently signals its artifice to the viewer. In fact, it signals the construction of cinema in each of Oscar’s appointments. Before each performance, Oscar transforms himself under a thick layer of make-up. It’s clear that he’s playing a whole cast of bizarre characters. (Lavant should be commended for playing eleven different parts, or one part, depending on how one looks at it.) Likewise, the film opens with a sedated audience watching a projection in a classic and dusty movie-house. They’re so enthralled by the film that they fail to notice the oversized dogs crawling down the aisles. The strange opening sequence, not to mention to stranger vintage title cards and the even stranger accordion concert during intermission, put Mr. Oscar in a peculiar role as he straddles art and life. It’s never quite clear who the real Mr. Oscar really is, a fact that Carax underscores—with his middle finger—when he presents Oscar’s children in the final scene.

Less like the self-reflexive repartee of the Audrey Hepburn/William Holden vehicle Paris When It Sizzles and more like the labyrinthine mind-fuck of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., Holy Motors confronts our love for the movies in some strange surrealist dance. It's as fun as Paris and as smart as Mulholland, so viewers are likely to scratch their heads in wonder of what’s transpiring before their eyes; however, it’s all so outlandish, so ridiculous, and so tangibly symbolic that it’s impossible to dismiss. Anyone whose motor isn’t completely going will surely be revved up by the end, which sees Oscar’s limo yawn and stretch its legs after its long day of work. Holy Motors makes little sense at first, but it’s sure to provide one of the most engaging film discussions of the year. 

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

Holy Motors screened in Ottawa as part of the Canadian Film Institute’s European Union Film Festival.