Mark Reviews Movies

Holy Motors


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Leos Carax

Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Elise Lhomeau, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli

MPAA Rating: NR

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 10/17/12 (limited); 11/9/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 8, 2012

One could probably watch Holy Motors until he or she had the film memorized and still not have a clue what it's "about." To describe the film is fairly simple—a man spends his day taking on nine roles (The actor tackles 11—technically one, of course (We'll get nowhere with numbers, which is actually a quick joke during one of the film's musical sequences)). To analyze it in any significant way could take two routes: 1.) Note every possible meaning, reference to itself and the medium of film in general (not to mention other media), and line of dialogue as the key to some grander explanation (There are also at least two literal keys here, one that opens the film and another that closes it); or 2.) take the easy route of dismissing any solid interpretation of those individual elements as a whole and simply elevating the experience of the film above all else.

The latter is preferable after one viewing, although the temptation remains to search the film for some purpose. There is simply so much happening in writer/director Leos Carax' surrealistic exploration of identity, cliché, the art of performance, and how and why we watch movies (and maybe even whether or not that is a worthy endeavor in the first place) that one wants to seek out as many interpretations as possible, watch it with fresh eyes, and start to delve even deeper. Carax' sturdy foundation for and often joyous presentation of the material ensures that such an undertaking is an inevitability.

The ideas come at us in a rapid-fire manner—in spurts of images and dialogue. The opening sequence shows a man—dubbed "the Sleeper" in the credits—awakening in a hotel room. That this man is played by Carax gives the scene an added layer of import; this is, essentially, the director's vision—his dream. He is, based on the sunglasses he dons, blind, and perhaps that says something, too, about the way in which Carax approaches the film—stumbling about and grasping for meaning as much as we are. The ambient noise suggests a harbor, with ship horns and gull squawks, but as he moves about the room, we note that the scene outside the window is of an airport.  We are immediately off-kilter and pretty much remain such throughout the film.

Then it gets stranger. The man walks to a wall of the room, adorned in wallpaper designed as a forest. He feels around and notes a hole. He extends his hand, and his middle finger is long, metallic key (We hope the vulgar connotation of the director basically giving the audience the finger is intended). After a bit of exploring, the Sleeper finds himself on the balcony of an old movie house—the source of the port noises (reality defined, in part, by cinema—another recurring theme here). The audience in the theater is enthralled yet impassive—a child and a dog wander the aisle without so much as a glance from anyone in the seats.

Beyond the entry into the actual narrative of the film, the key takeaway from the opening scene is that audience. Even before the Sleeper enters, there's a shot of the audience politely watching without any reaction as we hear a gunshot and scream coming from the screen. It's the appearance of desensitization—of the audience having seen everything already—that seems to inspire Carax ensuing vision. In it, though, one of the most important points is that there is no audience for what unfolds; the purpose, it seems, is that we consider and remain self-conscious of our own status as the audience.

The camera moves into the screen in the theater, where a young girl is looking out the window of a wealthy estate in the countryside outside of Paris. A businessman leaves the house and makes the long walk down the driveway to his limousine. His name is Mr. Oscar. He makes a call about business and security concerns, but it turns out that it barely matters. Soon, the camera slowly reveals more of the back of the limo, and there is a lighted vanity mirror, such as one would see in an actor's dressing room. When Mr. Oscar emerges from the limo, he is now an old woman—hunched over and feeble—who begs for money on a bridge while her inner monologue fills the soundtrack.

This man—the actor without an audience—is played by Denis Lavant, in a virtuoso, chameleonic performance that has this identity-less character traveling from one location to another, transforming himself into some new character along the way. In one scene, he is a man on his deathbed attempting to console a woman (Elise Lhomeau) who loved him once; in another, he is the disappointed father of a daughter (Jeanne Disson) who refuses to socialize with other kids.

He dies three times, is seriously wounded one time, and still never stops. At one point, he plays a gangster assigned to kill a man who looks exactly like him, then attempts to make the dead man look like himself (There's a moment where we wonder which man goes back to the limo, until we realize that it does not matter—they're one in the same).

The man arrives through a manhole as Mr. Merde, the aptly named, barely human creature that stomps around a cemetery and kidnaps a beautiful model (Eva Mendes) to turn her revealing dress into a burqa—a walking id with a Madonna-whore complex (He further turns her into the Madonna when he positions himself—fully nude—in a Pietà pose). The only possible glimpse we have of the man behind the masks is when he randomly encounters Eva (Kylie Minogue), a woman he once knew. Then again, perhaps it is only another familiar scenario like the rest; she does break into song that wonders "Who were we when were who we were back then."

Along the way, his trusty driver Céline (Edith Scob) keeps him on schedule, and his boss (Michel Piccoli) questions why the man continues the work. What is an actor without an audience? He loves the beauty of it.

There is no denying Holy Motors has a "je ne sais quoi l'enfer" quality to it. Perhaps Carax also identifies the film itself with this man—his reason for its creation as simple and the rationale for its purpose as inexplicable. A multitude of pleasures abound if one gives into the insane spell the film casts.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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