No other film threw convention to the wind while exploring such rich and textured territory like Leos Carax’s exquisite, divisively referential patchwork of cinema history that is Holy Motors. Both a bold deconstruction of the profession of acting and an audacious requiem for the physicality within the medium of film, the director’s return to long form cinema is a ravishing feast for the hardcore cinephile, blatantly giving the cold shoulder to those not in on the joke. Forced to accept financial defeat after nearly a decade of feature frustrations, Carax embraced the digital realm for it’s substantially cheaper production costs, but you’d be hard pressed to find fault with the on screen results. The film is a stylistic snake, wriggling from one cinematic mode to the next through a loose cannon series of utterly unpredictable sequences which all feature the auteur’s brilliant, amorphous stand-in, Denis Lavant.
At it’s core, the premise is fairly simple. In the near future, actors no longer perform on the stage or in front of a defined camera and crew for the sake of a larger production, instead they travel from one appointment to the next, performing scenes out of context for unidentified microscopic cameras. Lavant embodies Mr. Oscar, one such actor, though one who’s been around long enough to remember the old days of communally mechanized cinematics, the whirring of the film against gears and the fervid bonds formed on set with cast and crew. Through his slightly nostalgic ruminations with his equally aged limo driver, Céline (Edith Scob), and his decline in health and spirit throughout the picture, Carax acknowledges that film, as a cinematic medium, is indeed on the outs.
Before we are taken on a tour through the annals of cinema history via nearly a dozen different renderings of Lavant amidst the Parisian streets, Carax himself brings us into this new era. Symbolically summing up his last decade by literally finding his way through bedroom bound trees into a silent movie theater, we find ourselves riding along with Mr. Oscar on his way to his first of many appointments. Within the expansive walls of his stretch, all of the costumes and cosmetics of movie magic lie abound, allowing the quick transformations from an old beggar woman to a facially scarred criminal to a green-laced goblinesque being (the return of ‘Merde’ from his segment in Tokyo!) in a matter of moments, Lavant all the while devoutly embracing the physical beings of each character with extreme attention to minute movement and emotional resonation. Though detached as each character may be from the next, as the film finds its finals moments, we wholly empathize with Oscar’s weathered weariness.
With complete disregard to narrative conventions and to the occasional detriment of tonal clarity and pacing allure, Carax throws us through bizarrely satirical comedy, straight into somber family drama or blood soaked thrills, onward into musical triumph, off to traditional golden age romance and back again, all the while blurring the line between what exactly is performance and reality. When Oscar leaps from his limo between appointments to randomly assassinate what seems like a previous iteration of himself only to be gunned down in front of a crowd by authorities, one can only guess what the repercussions of confused conduct could be, if any at all exist within this mad-house world built around the decaying framework that is movie-making. Carax not only nods to genre moments past, but employs the opportunity to reference cinema greats throughout the film. One most obvious scene, he sets a fleeting love scene amongst the strewn bodies of mannequins laid sprawling about the abandoned floors of a once luxurious department store, visually calling to mind Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss, with a weird musical twist featuring Kylie Minogue, vaguely primped like Jean Seberg a la Breathless, aurally tapping multiple musical classics while still referencing his own monumental film, Lovers on the Bridge, prominently featuring what looks to be the Pont Neuf bridge in the background from a nearby rooftop. Densely packed with moments like these, Holy Motors is a magnificent, enigmatic Pandora’s box of heady referential salutes, cinematic critique and loving admiration for motion pictures on the whole. Accept the complete rejection of narrative structure in favor of the desultory chaos of Carax’s prophecy and you will undoubtedly have a blast as the director proves there is plenty of life left in film while crafting one hell of a meritorious send off to the medium.
One of several legitimizing items on Indomina Releasing’s roster this year, Holy Motors debuts in the US with an adequate Blu-ray release. Working from its digital source, the visuals are brilliantly detailed, with deep dark blacks that set off the often moody city lighting. Thanks to some wonderful work from the makeup and special effects teams, detail in Lavant’s prosthetic aging shows magnificent crispness without looking faulty. The overall presentation’s downfall is in it’s weak Dolby 5.1 track. Though it’s a dialogue heavy film, you’ve really gotta crank the volume to get any ooumph, even with occasional gunfire and the two big bold musical numbers, and even then the audio is quite underwhelming. Thankfully, the disc, which is packed in a standard Blu-ray case, rounds out with some solid extras.
Drive In: Making of Holy Motors
As a semi hallucinatory documenting of the film, this wonderful inclusion is a thorough making of featurette. There are revealing interviews with Lavant, Minogue and cinematographer Caroline Champetier, as well as on set footage with Carax and several complete scenes that play out behind the camera, either in crystal clear professional looking footage or grainy, manipulated video that looks to lean towards the Drive In title. 47 min
Kylie Minogue Interview
Spoken to the day after the film’s Cannes premiere, Minogue candidly speaks on how she ended up working on the project and what it was like under the direction of Carax. 12 min
Domestic & International Trailers
While the domestic trailer markets the film like a wacky summer comedy backed by raving critical quotes, the international one is markedly toned down, pushing the thematic strings over top of prominent actor highlights, neither giving much indication of what the film is about. Despite the tonal incongruence, the domestic one seems oddly more effective. 5 min
You can read all you like about the film, but there is nothing that could prepare you for what you’ll find within Holy Motors. All I can say is watch it. Just watch it. Despite the shower of critical praise it’s received, the film received a pitiful theatrical run domestically, so now if finally you’re chance to experience Carax’s long awaited opus. Though it’s definitely not perfect, the Blu-ray is passable on its visuals alone, even if it is currently a bit pricey.