- Director:Leos Carax
- Cast:Denis Lavant, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Michel Piccoli
- Release Date:August 23, 2012
- Running time:115 minutes
- Film Worth:$15.00
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It’s rich in cinematic references and intermittently fascinating, but it’s also frustratingly distant and strangely a little soulless.
The first thing that Australian audiences need to know about Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is that no matter what those who market the film want you to think, Kylie Minogue is not the star. She makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, and her glamour is downplayed in favour of the weary, almost haggard demeanour of a middle-aged performer who isn’t sure who she is anymore. She does sing a song, but it’s subdued by her standards – “Who Were We?” is a downbeat ballad that reflects this restlessly eccentric but sombre film’s themes of performance and fluid identity.
So if not Kylie, what is this enigmatic film all about? Start with the star, Denis Lavant, who doesn’t so much play a role as perform a two-hour meditation on role-playing. His character, Oscar, is an agent for a mysterious corporation. He is driven around Paris in a stretch limousine, participating in a series of bizarre interactions which are part performance art (alternately comic and horrifying) and part espionage. He plays a filthy subhuman troglodyte who kidnaps Eva Mendes; he plays an assassin, and really kills someone. More pedestrian turns are mixed in with the freaky stuff; in one touching scene, he’s a frustrated father driving his young daughter home. He seems to briefly play “himself” when meeting Minogue’s character, an old colleague in this strange business, but it’s never clear who that self is. Lavant carries the film with his pliant, Buster Keaton-like mug, and willingness to degrade himself in almost any way.
Otherwise, it’s hard to reconcile the experience of watching the film with the holy sensation breathlessly reported from Cannes. We read descriptions like “dazzling”, and that audiences gave it “rapturous” ovations. Swept up in the excitement, some of the first reviewers made it sound like a visionary cross between Metropolis and Mulholland Drive. So it’s surprising how quiet, cerebral, and ultimately melancholy the film is – very weird, yes, but actually quite lucid, even a little stiff, in its weirdness.
Holy Motors is surreal to be sure – often beautifully, sometimes violently so. Carax’s debt to Godard, Buñuel and other classic cinematic pranksters is clear; if nothing else, the film presents us with one interesting idea or striking image after another, from a Great Dane in a movie theatre to a feral Oscar biting the fingers off an arrogant American fashion photographer. But its experiments with narrative and identity are hardly revolutionary, and oddly tame. Carax’s response to postmodernism seems quaint and old fashioned – it’s as if this film had spent even more than thirteen years in development, as if he’d never seen the work of Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman. Truth told, there’s as much potent commentary on what it is to be human in the information age in The Matrix or Tron Legacy. And Holy Motors’ approach to its cyberpunk aesthetic is rather halting and diffident. In one of the more talked-about scenes, Oscar dons a skintight suit and takes part in a sensual motion-capture dance projected as animated sex between two otherworldly creatures. That we watch an actor play a performer who plays a dancer who plays an erotic alien provokes thought about layers of meaning – but it’s also kind of boring, and the digital effects aren’t extraordinary enough to carry it. Why all the framing devices? The film has already abandoned the idea of one reference point of reality, so why not plunge Oscar into a cyber-world? As loopy as things get, Carax often pulls his punches just as things threaten to be truly interesting, whereas Godard or David Lynch or Monty Python would twist the knife.
To be fair, the detachment is intended (if not the quaintness) – the tradition of the theatre is one of the film’s major themes. The only constant in the film is the interior of Oscar’s limo, rigged with a backstage mirror, makeup, and a seemingly endless collection of masks and costumes. Indeed, how you feel about Holy Motors might depend largely on whether such self-reflexiveness is your cup of tea. Similarly, it’s a rich feast for cinephiles, with references and allusions to other films, and to the form itself at every turn.
Is it therefore too much to ask for a bit more engagement? The shot in the opening scene of a strangely subdued audience in a cinema (are they asleep? hypnotised?) says it all. It’s fascinating; it’s frustratingly opaque; it doesn’t lead anywhere or connect to the rest of the film at all, serving only as a lovely bookend, or metaphor. There will be much discussion about whether people “get” Holy Motors, but in the end, there may not be much to get. It is, in a way, Carax’s way of shrugging at contemporary cinema and contemporary life. It’s like an abandoned mansion: elegant, haunting, elegiac, often beautiful – but also sadly empty.