Friday, January 4, 2013

Holy Motors Movie Review

All the world’s a stage, right? And each of us is merely a player with many roles to perform. Monsieur Oscar has many performances (or appointments) to give during the course of one day in Leos Carax’s enigmatic and occasionally frustrating Holy Motors.

Oscar (Denis Lavant) is driven around Paris in the back of a white limousine. Inside the space he occupies seems impossibly large and is outfitted with all manner of makeup, wigs, prosthetics, costumes, and props for Oscar to play, at different points in the day, a beggar woman, a technical stand-in for an action sci-fi film, a thug, a father, and on and on. His driver Celine (Edith Scob), who also serves as his assistant, tells him at the start of the day he has nine of these appointments, but I lost count around five.

Anyway, the number is inconsequential. What matters most is the presence of a single man in so many different guises, each one almost like a role in a different film genre. Ay, there’s the rub! There’s romance, family drama, action, gangster, and musical, making Holy Motors a small compendium of cinematic experience. Surely this is suggested by the opening which features Carax himself waking up in a room painted like a forest, unlocking a hidden door with a key growing out of his finger, and entering a cinema full of rock still audience members. The dreamlike ambiguity of this sequence is reminiscent of David Lynch.

Actually, the entire movie plays like the best of Lynch in the sense that there’s no clear overarching explanation for the action, but it makes sense on its own terms. One of the most beguiling sequences, and one that could easily be mistaken for a “David Lynch film,” has Oscar playing a strange-looking man who kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes) from Pére Lachaise, that most famous of Parisian cemeteries, and whisking her away to an underground cave. Never betraying the role of a model, Mendes maintains a blank emotionless expression even as Oscar bites the fingers off the photographer’s assistant, dresses Mendes up in a burqa and then strips naked before her.

If you view each story as one in a series of vignettes with the same actor starring, you get a picture of a career. There are hints toward the end of the film of a life lived prior to this job of daily appointments. Oscar runs into a woman named Jean (Kylie Minogue) who also rides in the back of a white limousine made up as someone else. They talk like old lovers meeting again after many years.

At heart, David Lynch is an experimental filmmaker who toys with narrative and images. Carax is clearly interested in experimental elements of filmmaking, but there is a narrative here that is more cohesive than some of the more difficult of Lynch’s films. I came away feeling like I needed to see the film a second time to try to connect everything, but I realized later there are probably no hints of connective tissue, no symbolism linking one character to another. This is portrait of cinema, or storytelling, of acting in particular and living more generally.

I don’t know what the grand meaning of Holy Motors is or even if Carax intends one. I kept expecting to learn that Oscar is a kind of heavenly angel sent, “Quantam Leap” style, to right certain wrongs in the world. How facile that would have been. Carax hints at something like that, however, especially with the title and the nighttime resting place for the limousines. As soon as you start searching for meaning in this film is the precise moment you become frustrated. It demands that you give yourself over to the journey that Oscar takes, which incidentally could be your own.

Holy Motors frequently shifts gears from dramatic to tragic to strangely comic. There are times when you find yourself laughing at the sheer incredulity of what’s transpiring on screen and others when you scratch your head in bewilderment. All the same, it is a wild experience and never dull if you’re willing to hang in there. Not everyone will enjoy this film. If you’re the kind of person who remarks that foreign or indie films are “weird,” then steer clear for this is not the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you are open to new cinematic experiences, this could well be one of the best movies you’ve seen all year.

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