Film Review: Holy Motors (Les Films du Losange; 2012)

By Tommy Greene

There’s always one. Each year at Cannes, one film splits opinion so emphatically that it becomes the prerogative of any self-respecting critic to take on said film and see if it really stands up to the giddy plaudits assigned it – or if it is all a masquerade waiting to be exposed – a criticism that, funnily enough, this film would delight in.

Last year’s ‘divider’, was Terrence Malick’s confused and self-indulgent The Tree of Life.  It was, it’s fair to say, a decided flop. And whilst a director of such repute is, after all, only as good as his last picture, such disenchanted/negative feedback does not sit well with these perfectionists. Pressure, you say? Take centre stage Leos Carax and his first feature length for thirteen years, Holy Motors.

A cosmic journey through the surreal, the hyper-real, the absurd, the grotesque, and almost every strand of modernist-postmodernist cinema/art out there, Holy Motors makes for one great artistic assault on its audience, and pulls no punches in doing so.  The existential nether-spaces of the opening scene – where our main protagonist, Oscar, breaks through a Shakespearean arras onto a balcony that overlooks a seemingly passive audience – sets the/his tone in unsettling his viewers, and denying them the palliative cinema experience we have come to expect only too often in recent years.

Instantly, we are plunged into an ice-cold bucket, filled with several of the film’s core ideas: voyeurism,’ being’, and the consumer-producer relationship.

Denis Levant is superb as the protean lead Monsieur Oscar.  Oscar ostensibly busies himself with traversing Paris in a chauffeured white limousine, completing his day’s round of nine documented ‘assignments’.  He casually dons a new mask, suited to each role he plays, as he shifts character for each undertaking.

Among the motley and multifold scenarios and characters that he meets during his day are small-time gangster murder scenes; the tr

agically bitter ride home of a father and his daughter in the wake of a painful teenage party and a bawdily hilarious scene involving a model-come-burqa-adorned/clad Eva Mendes (concomitantly paying homage to Lang’s Metropolis and issuing a clearly pointed censure in the face of his xenophobic/intolerant home nation). Plus, he does what so many people in the Western world have wanted to do for the last five years in marching right up to a replete banker and shooting him straight in the head.

Oh yeah, and Kylie: she’s in it. And, to her credit, the former-pop singer carries out her brief role as Oscar’s fated lover of another time-space dimension convincingly, although her accompanying musical number, surprisingly enough, falls short in parts.

The success of Holy Motors, however, is not in adding anything fundamentally new or seminal to the artistic sources to which it pays tribute, but in its masterful blending of their different styles and implications into a complex and kaleidoscopic vision, masterfully realised. Instead of examining one, or even each, of these styles individually, the film refracts them through the lenses of the others, often into fresh, new paths and trajectories. At times they meet to complement each other on amiable terms; on other occasions they jar and clash wildly.

Saying this, the piece does not completely unwind as the free, fluid motion to which it aspires. As is often the case when most films of this nature – i.e. those of a largely ontological bent – it veers too close to explanation, rather than illuminating.  A scene where Oscar meets the director of the up-to-then faceless organisation for whom he works feels somewhat hollow, tacked on.  The closing scene too – one of talking cars and limousines – proves something of a lacklustre and deflated strategy for ending this otherwise impressive picture.

Not for the faint-hearted; certainly not the ideal choice if you’re looking to unwind with a so-called ‘brainless flick’, but all the same, an irreverently provocative and entertaining work, whose endless cinematic nods will please enthusiasts greatly. If you want an engaging, quality piece of cinema, then see this. Just don’t let the inherent bizarreness that the film revels in put you off.