Not counting a few shorts (including one in Tokyo!), Holy Motors is French director Leos Carax’s long-awaited return to cinema since Pola X, his critically-acclaimed film which was released thirteen years ago.
The opening shot of Holy Motors is promising: breaking the fourth-wall almost immediately, the cinema audience are confronted with the haunting silhouettes of another audience facing them, an on-screen representation of themselves. The effect is unsettling, and sets out effectively the metafictional themes of theatre as reality/reality as theatre which serve to hold the film together (think along the lines of Charlie Kauffman’s masterpiece Synecdoche, New York).
The unsettling opening fades, and so begins the main body of the film – a dreamlike and surreal odyssey through a strange and uncanny Paris. Denis Lavant, Carax’s long-time collaborator, excels in his role as the film’s protagonist: the wonderfully enigmatic Monsieur Oscar. Ferried through the French capital in a white limousine (which also doubles as a dressing-room) by his perfectly coiffured chauffeur Celine (Édith Scob), Monsieur Oscar must meet nine ‘appointments’ throughout the day, the details of which he finds in dossiers which appear on his seat. Each appointment sees him donning wigs, applying latex masks, and adopting personas completely at odds from each other: from an ancient and hobbled beggar-woman, to a motion-capture actor performing an erotic dance with a latexed partner, to a tracksuit-wearing hitman assigned to assassinate his doppelgänger, and the leader of an accordion band in a candlelit church. Very little is given away as to the reason for these appointments, or the shadowy organisation which arranges them, and this is much to the film’s credit.
Toward the end of the film, Monsieur Oscar stumbles across his long-lost lover, played by Kylie Minogue. Their reunion is nostalgic, sentimental and moving. Mercifully, Minogue leaves the lacklustre roundhouse kicks and sparkly green fairy-wings of her previous cinematic endeavours behind her and delivers a refined and touching performance. Subtlety, however, is by no means the defining feature of Holy Motors, and – not content with the quiet melancholy of the moment – Carax then has Minogue burst into a bewilderingly dire musical number, the kind of song penned by an amateur secondary-school drama teacher for a Year 10 musical.
This tendency to turn the volume up to eleven characterises most of the film, and serves to make moments of it incredibly frustrating to watch. In one episode Oscar dresses as a green-suited mad man, and tears through a Parisian graveyard, furiously munching flowers left beside the graves, on his way to kidnap American supermodel Kay M (played by Eva Mendes). The scene is beautifully shot and artfully executed, managing to be both comic and sinister, and is full of intelligent blink-and-you’ll-miss-them touches (on the gravestones, for example, are adverts for cryptic websites).
That is until the scantily clad Mendes is carried by Oscar into the sewer, where he begins to dress her in a golden hijab and has her perform a catwalk in the half-dark of his lair. Did you get that everybody? The supermodel is now covered in a hijab. Holy Motors once again takes the hammer of symbolism and proceeds to bludgeon the viewer’s intellect with it. Many scenes are ruined in a similar fashion, and none prove more frustrating than Lavant’s final moments in the film. Starting with reminding the audience cleverly that Monsieur Oscar is just as much a mystery as he was at the start of the film, the scene goes on to a jarring interaction between Oscar and our simian cousins. Another generous helping of shoehorned symbolism destroys what would have been a pitch-perfect ending. And the less we talk of the frankly ridiculous homage to Pixar’s Cars the better.
This is not to say that Carax’s Holy Motors is without merit: a film this magical and weird cannot fail to win hearts. Its self-confidence is bold and engaging, and its willingness to be overtly surreal, nonsensical and original is refreshing, especially in the current midst of tried-and-tested sequels, prequels and adaptations. Yet, Carax’s delicate touches, artistic flair and evident cinematic prowess are lessened by a small number of bungled moments and an occassional, uncharacteristic heavy-handedness. The result is a perplexing, uneven and unlevel piece of cinema. Leos Carax’s fifth film is a Jekyll and Hyde monster of a feature. Simultaneously frustrating and moving, grating and intelligent, clumsy and profoundly beautiful, Holy Motors is a strange animal indeed.
Holy Motors is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.