The most sublime moment of Holy Motors features a strange being from the sewers rising up and intruding upon a photo shoot. The photographer, previously enraptured by the beauty of a model played by Eva Mendes, is now captivated by the unique, vaguely monstrous creature he sees before him. “So weird!” he exclaims gleefully, multiple times, as he snaps photos.
It is, in a nutshell, a microcosm of the enjoyment brave cineastes will get from Holy Motors; whether you love it or hate it, “So weird!” will likely be the first words to escape your lips upon exiting the theater.
No, Holy Motors isn’t a movie for everyone. In fact, it’s not a movie for very many people at all. Twelve of us, maybe. Fans of David Lynch may want to check it out; also, fans of hallucinogenic substances. Anyone else? Caveat emptor. The film, by the reclusive Leos Carax, contains many cinematic references to films you likely haven’t seen (surreal French ones, mostly); I haven’t seen them either, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the movie any.Holy Motors is, essentially, a dream captured on film. Kind of. There is a linear plot and structure ― the story doesn’t quite meander the way a dream does, but it does operate by dream logic; that is to say, no logic whatsoever. It’s about a man who has a specific number of tasks he must complete, and we watch him cross them off his To Do list one by one. Yet there’s no way any of this can be taken seriously, for something impossible happens in virtually every sequence. It’s a metaphor for filmmaking — or maybe more specifically, acting. Or maybe, less specifically, life. Our protagonist, portrayed by Denis Lavant, puts on costumes and assumes different personas the way an actor would, though it’s not clear who the audience is, nor who has employed him. It doesn’t matter ― it’s best not to think too hard about what it all means, and just let the experience wash over you, if it will. (Which it may very well not. Like I said, Holy Motors is only for the very adventurous.)
That sequence with Eva Mendes is quite possibly the film’s highlight, and it occurs relatively early in the movie. It’s absurd, and hilarious, and a little unsettling. (A few other segments achieve this unique combination, too.) There’s a haunting and strangely beautiful scene in which Lavant dons a motion capture suit and engages in some perverse choreography with a female costar; Kylie Minogue appears in another as a former lover. (Yes, she sings.) Throughout, the consequences of life and death are unclear ― sometimes people “die” and get right back up, uninjured; sometimes they die and appear to stay dead. (You know, like a dream.) The film brings to mind Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York, but in a not-so-pretentious way. That movie, I found tedious; this one I’m eager to revisit.
Holy Motors is, in some ways, a series of short films from different genres loosely connected by a larger story, with an actor (of sorts) riding around in a white limousine, hating his job more and more by the minute. (We can see why ― it does look rather exhausting.) Then again, he doesn’t seem to be playing these characters so much as truly becoming them — there’s an emotional truth to his “performances” that can’t be entirely faked. (Particularly in a scene with his supposed daughter.) Many people around him are actors, too ― all of them?
You could draw a lot of subtext from any several different interpretations of the movie; really, there an infinite number conclusions to be drawn. But Carax isn’t interested in definitive answers. As in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, there’s no one logical conclusion to draw from the storyline; the film is ever-evolving, changing its rules from one scene to the next, or sometimes within the same scene. It’s toying with us, in a cerebral way.
Primarily, though, Carax seems to be interested in having a good time, and showing us the uncharted and unexpected. Though certain segments are moving, the final few minutes are comedic and absurd. The final scene might be the most unexpected ending to a movie I’ve ever seen. (Yes, even in a movie as bizarre as this one.) It lets us know Carax isn’t taking himself too seriously, and nor should we.
Holy Motors runs the gamut of emotions you can feel during a movie ― touched, amused, disgusted, alarmed, enthralled ― and once or twice, even bored. (That might even be intentional, given how some of the more melodramatic scenes end.) It’s more a sum of its parts than a whole; a love letter to cinema, or maybe just a gifted filmmaker playing with every tool in his box. There are a number of moments in the movie worth watching again, which means I’d recommend it… to myself, at least. To the general moviegoing public at large? If only.
It would be easy to lavish Holy Motors with easy praise; to read too deeply into its many moods; to try and discover what it’s “about.” But the truth is, Holy Motors doesn’t want that kind of burden. It aims to please — a small number of us, anyway — and to entertain. I hate to call it “pure cinema,” but that’s what it is. So pure, in fact, that audiences used to the more diluted fare will choke on it.
Holy Motors waves its freak flag proudly. Most will be repulsed, the way the photographer’s assistant is when that sewer man-beast crashes his photo shoot. (It doesn’t end well for her.) But a few of us will be more like that photographer ― excited, enticed, entranced, because it’s just… “so… weird!”
Don’t believe me?
Watch the trailer.