Film Review: ‘Holy Motors’ pays tribute to cinema while exploring its edges

November 16, 2012

How appropriate that I had dreamt of seeing Holy Motors before I even saw it. I rarely ever dream of movies. Movies are dreams made manifest, and as Holy Motors proves, filmmaker Leos Carax knows this, so why bother? In my dream, I had arrived late to a preview screening for the film. I tried to sneak in behind the columns laid out throughout the dark theater, after the film had begun. However, Carax knew of my sacrilege, as he was in the theater. After the film had ended he confronted me and said I had not seen his movie at all as I showed up late, and how could I pose as a film critic when I dare think missing the beginning of a film was an acceptable practice. He was pissed, and I was devastated that he did not know the pains I go through to make sure I always see films from beginning to end, especially if I plan to write about them.

Of course this is my subconscious telling me something, not the real Carax, who has not made a feature film in 13 years. As some of my former students of a Hollywood Film and US Culture class I once taught at Barry University can attest (if you showed up late to screening day, you would find the class door locked), I am the true film fascist in this scenario. Just as dreams are loaded with one’s own experiences, Holy Motors will bring more pleasure to those who want something more from a movie-going experience than the usual Hollywood fare. If Holy Motors is not made for deep— dare I say— masochistic lovers of pure cinema, I do not know what movie would be. The film’s references to cinema are both pure and obscure. Carax celebrates the medium by emphasizing what is missing as much as what is present. Yes, the film has a surreal quality, but that is only because cinema by its nature has a surreal quality.

We do not live life jumping from one scenario to another in reality. Jumping through time and space is impossible. Yet, how often do film viewers forget about true realism when they comment “that wasn’t realistic enough” or “that defied logic”? Film can never be logical. Blame that on the film splice, the one single, distinctive characteristic of the cinematic art form, as Stanley Kubrick once noted. Within film splices, as far as storytelling, anything is possible. That is why it becomes a losing battle to try to watch Inception with undivided attention thinking one will find where the dream in the film begins and ends. Spoiler alert: It’s all a dream.

From the very beginning, Holy Motors embraces a self-awareness that it is a film and that the medium shares characteristics of a dream. Indeed, as prophesied by my dream, missing the opening credits will take away from the experience of this movie. As plain, Ariel block letters present the opening credits, interspersed among them are images that pre-date cinema. Silent images of a naked athlete by the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey pass by in an almost subliminal flash. Then the cinema screen declares its mirror-like quality by presenting a full, darkened theater. All the faces in the packed house are darkened and still as dramatic sound effects and a scream blast out of the soundtrack from some unseen film.

Holy Motors follows a man (Denis Lavant) who we appropriately first meet lying in bed alone (dreaming?). An aura of darkness surrounds the bed. There are doors and hallways until M. Oscar heads off from his home, seemingly situated in a clearing with a forest. Reality enters the dream-like state as a child tells him to work hard and bring home money. Over the course of the film, we will learn this man is an actor working in a world where the camera has disappeared, and he has nine assignments lined up for the day. The actress of Eyes Without a Face, Edith Scob plays Céline who drives M. Oscar to these jobs in a stretch limo, inside which he applies his own makeup between scenarios.

An early job has him working in motion capture. It’s a scene that references an early serial in France’s film infancy, Les Vampires, often celebrated and referenced in French cinema, while tying it to the future of cinema. Wearing a black cat suit with strategically placed dots, M. Oscar must perform ninja-like moves to an invisible adversary. Then, a cold, disembodied voice orders him to pick up a sub-machine gun and get on a treadmill in the massive, black-walled room. With a dizzying array of geometric shapes scrolling past in the background, Carax references his own 1986 film Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), and the miraculously choreographed sequence to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” performed by Lavant, which you can watch here. Though possibly more dynamic in Holy Motors, the new version of this scene is cheapened as a digital effect and M. Oscar’s seemingly random firing of the sub-machine gun. By the end of this scenario, Carax seems to subvert the digital FX world of today’s cinema, as it leaves M. Oscar worn out, despite his giving it his acrobatic all, including a love scene with a contortionist (Zlata). Yet, in the end, the man is only donating motion for an end product, which proves to be (literally) a gruesome, monstrous affair.

Movie Monsters are a big part of Holy Motors. “Shit” M. Oscar declares after he has returned to the back of the limo and opens a metal box labeled “wild” for his next assignment. Inside: the mask of M. Merde who Lavant played in Carax’ short film in the Tokyo! omnibus from 2008. A spectacular creature, M. Merde is a barefooted beast of a being with crazed red hair, a dead eye and claws for nails. He lives in the sewers to rampage around the city streets in broad daylight eating flowers, chain-smoking and pushing or walking over anyone who might stand in his way. The tune used to score this assault on society is taken from the first Godzilla movie. M. Merde even captures a damsel (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot to later share a cuddle with, back in his subterranean hovel.

Though there are several, often-cinematic referencing, vignettes throughout the film, they all keep the viewer guessing whether something is going wrong by the rules of this unreal world (one catches on via the action and rarely exposition). Holy Motors is all about breaking down the fourth wall of cinema but then making you question it. It heightens mystery to another level of the viewer’s own perception. It recalls David Lynch in its indulgence of the unknown and an intention to never provide concrete answers. It also recalls Federico Fellini. Beyond the reference to “9,” from his film about filmmaking, 8 ½, Holy Motors is a celebration of the art of film with a wry sense of humor but also with an eye to transcendence and the sublime encounter with the unknown.

The acting jobs M. Oscar takes vary from such bombastic affairs as those described above, to tender moments like a scene from a death bed or a cruel chat with an insecure teenage daughter. Through the talented Lavant, Holy Motors reveals M. Oscar is a master actor tiring of what has come of his craft. During an encounter with a fellow actress, Jean (Kylie Minogue), the two steal away together to reminisce. They walk off into the ruins of the Samaritaine, a once celebrated French department store near Notre Dame left to decay. Jean breaks into a song of how “who were we when we were/back then?” The lyrics of the song seem to mourn a time when the suspension of disbelief in movies was more real or moving than today’s visual arts. Sometimes I wonder if it’s my age and my lack of naiveté and if knowing so much about cinema spoils movie-going. But maybe it is the plague of this effort of things like “found footage” genre films, the unspoken falseness of reality TV and digital characters designed to blend in with human actors in blockbuster movies that have all become too tough to swallow in an over-reach for “reality.” For all its seeming craziness, Holy Motors actually asks a very down-to-earth question: Can’t a movie just be a movie?

Hans Morgenstern

Watch the trailer:

Holy Motors is not rated (but those 17 and under will need some life and cinema experience to appreciate it), has a runtime of 115 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. Nationwide screenings dates can be found hereIt December, it continues to expand in South Florida, making its premiere on Miami Beach on Dec. 7 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

It opened Nov. 16, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema for its South Florida premiere run (the theater provided a preview screener DVD for the purpose of this review). Holy Motors then appeared in Broward County on Fri. Nov. 23, at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale.

Update: Miami will have another chance to see this film on the big screen at O-Cinema beginning Thursday, Jan. 17 (more dates available here). The news arrives just as Holy Motors was recently announced as the number 1 movie of the year via an exhaustive survey by “Film Comment.” It was close to reaching number 1 on my personal best-of in 2012… very close.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

2 Responses to “Film Review: ‘Holy Motors’ pays tribute to cinema while exploring its edges”


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