Holy Motors is a tour de force of the absurd [VIFF 2012]

Holy Motors Theatrical Poster

Title: Holy Motors
Genre(s): Drama
Director(s): Leos Carax
Release Year: 2012
IMDB: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

The world we live in today is infatuated with the spotlight, with the notion of being captured on camera at all points in time an ideal for some. We have television shows dedicated to this idea of ‘reality’, which people digest even when they know it’s not completely improvised. But imagine a world now where the cameras cannot be seen, and people are paid to merely be in the spotlight. Given a script, a character, and detailed outline, they take to the outside world and deliver the scenes that general audiences crave: a monster movie; a romance that can never be; a music video; the last words of a dying man; a murder gone wrong; an absurd piece of performance art; a person struggling to survive; and the relationship between man and animal. These are all things that occur in the almost-2 hour feature film from Leos Carax, Holy Motors. It’s a piece of avant-garde cinema that will likely never be matched, serving as a reminder of the diversity of cinema and just how obsessed society is with being in the spotlight.

Denis Lavant stars as Monsieur Oscar, and he is one of those performers who lives for the art of the performance, which can be seen in the opening scene of the film where we are placed in Oscar’s dream. In it, he awakens in a cinema, and is subsequently transported into a new environment. It’s this magical ability that cinema has on him which dictates the life he has chosen, and displays why he does what he does in this film. In the time-span of one day he goes through all of the aforementioned transformations, delivering incredible performances all around. Really, this is a film that lives or dies by its lead actor, and Lavant (who is no stranger to starring in a Carax film) flourishes in each and every role he’s placed in. With seven appointments to attend to, he shifts into one character and then another, fully embodying their mental and physical state. It’s truly an art, that fully takes shape when he’s forced to interact with other performers in their own unique roles. Questions arose within me, though, about just how deep this lifestyle goes: are kids part of this performance troupe as well? How are these actors selected? Why have cameras become so small? There are many more questions the film will invoke, but none of them matter. What matters to the audience of this film is that they are entertained, and what matters to Oscar is that he delivers that entertainment, even if he doesn’t know who exactly is watching him.

And even Monsieur Oscar hates some of the characters he plays, their sensationalism being what audiences crave, and what he detests.

The base meaning that one could possibly pull from this film is that it’s a commentary on how people live their lives. Erving Goffman is a sociologist who introduced the notion of people always putting on a mask and conforming to the situation at hand. At no point are people acting completely honestly when they are in a room with another person. Arguably it could be said that even when alone, under certain circumstances, there may be reason not to act naturally either. Essentially, everyone is a character in a play, and when they go backstage, they merely don another mask and turn the backstage into the spotlight. This results in a cycle that repeats indefinitely. Looking at Holy Motors you can see this happening at all times. The only moment that he seems himself is when he’s in the limousine that carries him from appointment to appointment, but his driver (Edith Scob) is playing her own role as the driver of a limousine. Even at the end of his day, Oscar simply moves onto another appointment, one that will take him through the entire night and into his next day of appointments.

Carax wonderfully articulates many movies within a movie, all of which carry their own significant motif. However, what is the connecting thread between them all is Lavant, who delivers an astounding performance that cannot be rivaled in its complexity and difficulty this year. It will likely be the kind of movie that general audiences shun (a few people even walked out of my own screening), but for those who are there because of their love of film, there will be no greater pleasure this year. Holy Motors is thought-provoking, entertaining, ridiculous, and hypnotizing. It lulls in some scenes but follows any brief moments of boredom with a sequence that is truly unforgettable. If you aren’t the kind of person who gets behind foreign films as easily as others, this may be the movie for you because of its focus on spectacle rather than dialogue. You will remain transfixed on Lavant’s transformations, never ceasing to be amazed by just how diverse of an actor he displays himself as, and because of that Holy Motors is a film that must be watched by anyone who considers themselves a film buff.

Overall: Recommended

Screening courtesy of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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