CIFF Review: Holy Motors


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The hardest reviews to write are the ones for films you absolutely adored. You try to summarize as much as you can while still being vague. At the same time, you want to yell out everything you loved about the film as much as you want to keep it all a secret for everybody to discover themselves. You want to keep thinking about the film in hopes of solving that one puzzle that eluded you during its runtime, yet doing so will make you want to see it again.

Holy Motors is one of those films. As such, I will try my best to not spoil the film. However, if imaginative, contemplative films interest you, I implore you to watch the film without reading this review, because it will contain some minor spoilers.

Holy Motors
Director: Leos Carax
Rating: NR
Countries: France and Germany
Release Date: October 17th, 2012 (New York)

On a surface level, Holy Motors is about an older man named Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he is driven around in a stretch limo by his driver and assistant, Celine (Edith Scob). Oscar is given various assignments, which turn out to consist of a myriad of jobs in which he takes on a number of characters ranging from a female beggar to a motion capture artist. As Oscar essentially travels from life to life, a little bit of the curtain is pulled aside to give insight on Oscar’s life.

On a more analytical level, Holy Motors is an amalgamation of ideas and concepts that wouldn’t exactly work in Hollywood, and that’s what I love so much about the film. Every “thought-provoking” film that comes out of Hollywood almost always has a romantic subplot. It makes sense, given what audiences are expecting, let alone the fact that it’s an easy ploy to add a level of emotion to the film. Foreign films, on the other hand, use internal emotional conflicts to convey a more appreciative sense of humanity.

Each character that Oscar plays feels like its own little vignette. In one assignment, Oscar dons a motion capture suit while he performs various martial arts moves. Somehow, it culminates into a simulated sex session, with an off-screen monitor rendering his and his partner’s suits into snake-like monsters partaking in hentai-like sexual shenanigans. In another assignment, Oscar breaks into a musical interlude full of accordions, woodwinds, and string sections as they walk through an empty church. In essence, Lavant is playing close to a dozen roles throughout the film. His ability to seamlessly transition from character to character the same way his primary character does is a testament to his ability.

At the same time, the costume design and makeup work is phenomenal in their talents to transform Lavant into every character. I don’t usually care much for costume design or makeup unless it’s overtly obvious (like in fantasy or superhero films), but when it’s in full display in a film that both relies on it, yet doesn’t use it as a gimmick, you can’t help but appreciate it.

Beyond that, though, is Carax’s talents as a director. Through the entire film and up to this very moment as I type (and well beyond this review is published, I’m sure), I feel captivated and enthralled over what I just saw. There are bits and pieces that imply exactly what is going on, but it’s not blatantly explained. Is Holy Motors a reflection of the film industry? Is it a mirror of humanity’s differences? Is it an examination of life’s choices? Whatever it is, Holy Motors will keep you guessing, talking, contemplating, discussing, and interested for a long while.

Hubert Vigilla: I caught Holy Motors during the New York Film Festival. It’s Leos Carax’s first feature film in 13 years, basically channeling a number of disparate ideas through one of his regular collaborators, actor Denis Lavant. He’s a man who looks like a debonair vagabond, and his role is to temporarily inhabit lives and to act out an aesthetically interesting scenario according to the dictates of some unknown boss. Holy Motors is a film about film about art about performance, shot on digital cameras — a pomo take on the creative process. But that sounds too stodgy and academic, and while Holy Motors is a dense collection of aesthetic references, it’s not stodgy or academic. This is earthy stuff and more intuitive and instinctual. The film’s a bit more of a dream, really, opening with Carax himself discovering a secret door into a darkened cinema.

This all might just be the reflective nature of 21st century art — that our present dreams are defined by our ability to look back, project forward, synthesize all eras at our disposal, and hopefully find an answer we believe in as we stumble into the future. So we see Muybridge and motion capture, and there are nods to Jean Cocteau and Georges Franju and even Henry James, and there’s a glorious wave to one of my favorite film scores and then something that feels right out of Jacques Demy. But Holy Motors exists as an aesthetic enigma. It refuses easy interpretation or simple analysis. I think it’s better to revel in the lunacy and strangeness of it all than to figure out what the signifiers signify. Step into Carax’s dream, don’t worry about what it all means, and just go with it. The movie theater’s become a dance floor. If you don’t like the song that’s playing, there’s another song coming up you’ll probably dig. Find the crazy rhythm and don’t think about it until afterwards. (And I mean that in the good way.) I may not have been as blown away by Holy Motors the first time around (the problem of so much hype, perhaps, or the product of festival fatigue), but I enjoy it more each time I think about it. Imagine what’ll happen when I can stop thinking about it and just see it again. 78 – Good