Review: ‘Holy Motors’ is dizzying, visionary, and one-of-a-kind

CANNES – The last time I saw the name “Leos Carax” onscreen was as part of the anthology film “Tokyo!”, where he was one of three directors including Bong Joon-ho and Michel Gondry.  His segment, “Merde,” was surreal and silly, and his star, Denis Lavant, gave a unique performance as the title character, a strange sewer-dwelling beast.  The images from that stuck with me the same way images from Carax’s earlier film “Lovers On The Bridge” stuck with me, and I’ve been hoping for the last four years for Carax to get back to making features.

“Holy Motors” was more than worth the wait.

It is rare for me to see a film that I enjoy so deeply and that I feel like I have just begun to understand, but “Holy Motors” is a huge meal, a rich and playful picture that packs so much into its two-hour running time that once I finally staggered out of the Salle Debussy last night, I felt drunk.  I was dizzy from everything that Carax had thrown at me, but I was also feeling that light-headed wooziness that comes in the first flush of love.  It is a film that speaks to me on the same intuitive level as something like “Enter The Void” or “El Topo” or “Eraserhead,” and while I can’t claim to have fully digested it yet, I can say with confidence that it’s my favorite film I’ve seen so far at Cannes and so far in 2012.  It is a film I’ll see many times in the future, and I look forward to exploring every corner of this kingdom of dreams that Carax has created.

The film opens with a few flickering images from a different age, some of the first film ever shot, motion studies of a nude man running.  Shot by Etienne-Jules Marey, they immediately evoke Muybridge’s running horse, a simple loop designed to show off this lunatic notion of “moving pictures.”  We find ourselves in a dark theater, but facing the wrong way, staring out into a sea of motionless spectators all waiting for… something.  It’s hard to tell if they’re bored or dead or riveted by something we cannot see.  The next cut takes us to a bedroom, somewhere else entirely, where Leos Carax himself lies in bed.  He hears a noise he cannot explain, and he rises, begins to explore the walls of his room.  A long steel key erupts from one finger, and he realizes there is a keyhole waiting behind a tear in his wallpaper.  He opens the door and steps into a hallway, following a flickering light to another door that leads him into a theater.  He stops, looking up at the screen, and then we plunge into the film he is watching, in effect stepping into Carax’s private internal dreamscape.  The framing device makes a strong case for this being a film about the nature of film and performance, although that is only one possible reading of what unfolds.

Denis Levant has been a longtime collaborator for Carax, and this may be the single greatest showcase of his fits as a performer that anyone could design.  He plays Mr. Oscar, who begins his day as a conservative businessman in his 50s, waking up in his beautiful home, surrounded by his family.  He enjoys a quiet breakfast with them, then heads outside to where his limousine is waiting, along with his driver, Celine, played by Edith Scob.  As he begins his drive to work, it seems like any businessman on his way to work, looking through files that have been organized to help him prepare for the nine appointments he’s got scheduled for the day.

Mr. Oscar is no ordinary businessman, though, and his appointments aren’t what we are initially led to believe they will be.  Instead, he transforms himself completely at each new stop.  For example, the first stop sees him emerge from the back of the limo as a hunched old woman, begging for change on the street.  Once he’s done with that, he heads back into the limo and begins to prepare for the next stop, a huge industrial factory that seems to produce motion-capture imagery.  Mr. Oscar emerges this time in a black body stocking studded with reference dots, his face covered with them as well.  What occurs in the pitch darkness of the motion-capture stage is strange and violent and erotic, a dance that erupts into depersonalized imagery, dark and upsetting and surreal.

And that’s just the warm-up.

In some ways, “Holy Motors” made me think of “Wings Of Desire,” with Mr. Oscar and his brethren, glimpsed in a few random encounters during the day, serving as spirits of the modern age, stepping in to help usher mortals from life into whatever’s next, playing their part at a key moment in the lives of these people.  But you could also see Mr. Oscar as a commentary on the very art of performance, with him slipping from role to role, each of them demanding a total transformation from him.  Or you could read it as a comment on the way we move through life, playing different versions of ourselves depending on who we’re with and what the situation is.  Perhaps the film is about the twilight of film itself, and Carax is writing a eulogy for this art form that means so much to him and to so many people, with these appointments serving as the replacements for art, stand-alone performances that vanish the moment Mr. Oscar moves on.  The fact that all of those interpretations seem equally valid to me actually adds to the film’s power.

Beyond that, though, “Holy Motors” is a sensual pleasure, a film that is visually rich and often stunning, and it is quite simply a pleasure to watch Levant slip in and out of each new identity.  He’s a unique presence on film even when he’s just stripped down and appearing as himself, but when you give him these wildly different characters to play at each stop, it is an embarrassment of riches, a master class in what an actor is capable of with their body and their voice and the most bare-bones of props and costuming.  Levant uses make-up at times to age himself or to add deformities, but the real change is just in him, and he is riveting.

The rest of the cast floats through, each of them making an impression with their one or two scenes.  Kylie Minogue, referenced early on when we hear “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” playing at a party, actually shows up near the end of the film in a tender, tearful sequence, and she’s very good in the part.  Likewise, Jeanne Disson shows up as a teenage girl who has a sad and awkward encounter when Levant picks her up from a party as her father, and she’s very real, very natural.  There are moments where Levant actually plays scenes opposite himself, leading to a hall of mirrors effect that is dizzying, and there’s even a stunning musical intermission where Levant leads a group of musicians through a church playing a furious accordion piece that is brilliant and beautiful.

The film is absolutely laden with self-referential touches, and instead of feeling like silly easter eggs, they feel like they help to make the film’s thematic points.  Take the name Mr. Oscar.  “Leos Carax” isn’t the director’s birth name.  Instead, it’s an anagram for “Alex Oscar,” his first and middle names.  And casting Edith Scob, who is a legend, would be an interesting touch for anyone who knows the history of French film and her place in its firmament, but when she breaks out a mask and puts it on and we are suddenly looking at her as she appeared 50 years ago in “Eyes Without A Face,” Carax is connecting his film directly back to a much larger body of work. 

Perhaps the most devastating touch is at the start of the credits, when an image appears of Katerina Golubeva, his wife who took her own life last year.  Mortality and especially suicide cast long shadows over segments of the film, and it feels like Carax took all of his pain and found a way to use it in a way that honors the artistic and emotional life he shared with Golubeva.  I would imagine much of his pent-up feelings about that event made its way into the Kylie Minogue sequence, and when she begins to sing, a move that might feel ridiculous in lesser hands, knowing it was Carax who wrote that music and hearing what she sings about becomes almost pulverizing in its emotional weight.

There’s something heartbreaking about the loss of film from the art of filmmaking, and “Holy Motors” seems to be mourning that paradigm shift, even as it manages to be one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen shot in high-definition video.  When the film starts with images from the silent era and spends so much time aggressively discussing the idea of obsolescence, the media quite literally is the message, and just one more layer of meaning that Carax is playing with, and a terribly ironic one.

I love films that shake loose the restraints of conventional narrative, but that doesn’t just mean piling on random imagery without any purpose.  The greatest film surrealists understand that even if they aren’t going to offer you answers about their intent, there still needs to be a driving idea, something that unites what we’re watching.  Jodorowsky’s “Holy Mountain” succeeds because we can feel the conviction behind each scene and each image.  David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” is riveting  because of the way he took an unfinished piece and turned it inside out halfway through, turning a pilot to a series into a stand-alone statement about identity.  In this case, Carax exhibits such control, such confidence, such singular voice, that there is no doubt in my mind that he knows what this film means, and I am willing to let him sweep me up in this fever dream.

I have no idea when or if “Holy Motors” will reach the US, but it may be the best film I’ve seen in my two years at this festival.  I am refreshed by it, my faith in the unique power of film completely restored. I feel like I’ve just had my first drink of water after a drought, or my first bite of food after a fast.  Even at a festival that has featured many very good or even great movies, this stands out as something special, as that hit I am always chasing when I sit down to two hours in the dark.  I just hope we do not have to wait another decade for a new feature from this deranged, determined genius.