How on earth do you begin to review “Holy Motors”. To be perfectly honest, it’s a movie that I had to think about for a few days before even attempting to review it. Now in some ways that could be considered a good thing. It usually means that the film is original and that it prompts thought and reflection. This film certainly does that. But I kept battling with a key question : What is “Holy Motors?” Is it science fiction? Is it experimental? Is it allegorical? What is it that “Holy Motors” wants to be? I’ve yet to be able to even vaguely answer this. Now to be clear, it’s not an issue of knowing all the details and having everything about the movie figured out. It’s about a movie that came across as jarring and disjointed to the point of incoherency and in the end I couldn’t connect with it despite its impressive artistry.
My pal Ruth over at Flixchatter accurately points out that the nature of experimental cinema is that it’s often incoherent. She’s exactly right and for me this was the case with “Holy Motors” (you can find Ruth’s fantastic review here). I don’t doubt for a moment that writer and director Leos Carax has cryptic themes and underlying commentary hidden throughout this film. But to be honest I found the focus on bizarreness and lunacy to be distracting to the point of subverting any intended point or message. And then there’s the possibility that there isn’t meant to be a profound and provocative message at all. Maybe the entire seemingly plotless exercise is more of an attempt at artistic expression. If that’s the case the movie does work on some levels. But even that’s undone but some of the wildly outlandish concoctions that Carax puts together.
As I hinted at we get little in terms of story. The movie follows a man known only as Oscar (Denis Lavant). He’s driven around Paris in a white stretch limo by Céline (Édith Scob). She takes him to different “assignments” scattered throughout the city. While traveling from place to place, Oscar is given a file and then, with a crazy assortment of makeup, prosthetics, and costumes undergoes a physical transformation in preparation for the next “assignment”. Throughout the night he takes on the appearance of a motion capture performer, a streetwise gangster, a sickly elderly man, and a maniacal flower eating leprechaun to name a few. We watch each of these “assignments” play out, some which are pretty intriguing and others that completely turned me off.
Contributing to the confusion is the fact that there’s no real connection between any of these individual “assignments”. It’s essentially a handful of shorts and if you like that sort of thing you’ll like “Holy Motors”, that is assuming all of these “shorts” work for you. Well, experimental cinema isn’t my favorite and several of these shorts didn’t work for me so obviously “Holy Motors” didn’t either. And I could never shake the feeling that Carax was simply trying to be as weird as possible during certain moments of the film. Now this led to a few mildly amusing moments but it also led to moments where I found myself drifting further away from the film. And then there are times when it moves from being absurd to borderline offensive. But considering how difficult it is to understand what Carax is doing, it’s hard to judge.
I don’t want to end this without giving the movie credit for some things it does well. First off Denis Lavant is fantastic. Carax wrote the part with him and only him in mind and you can see why. He’s a multi-talented performer and he’s also a strong actor. Some of the film’s best scenes are the conversations between him and Scob. The film also looks fantastic. The camera work and the slick editing give it an amazing visual appeal. There were also two of the “assignments” that I found to be quite effective. One involves him posing as an elderly man on his deathbed. Another sees him involved in a rooftop musical number with pop star Kylie Minogue. And speaking of music, perhaps my favorite scene in the entire film has Oscar and a band of other musicians performing an accordion jam while walking around the inside of a cathedral. It’s absolutely amazing even though I have no clue where it fits in with everything else.
As I scoured the different reviews for this film I kept seeing descriptive words such as strange, deranged, bonkers, bizarre, gross, madness, weird, frustrating, and soulless and these were all from the positive reviews. Again, if you’re into this you’ll probably have fun with “Holy Motors”. If characters and plot are important ingredients for you, then you’ll probably start checking out before the halfway mark. In the end I guess I can see where some people would enjoy “Holy Motors” and I definitely see where critics would fall all over themselves praising it. But I found it to be a self-indulgent, intentionally strange and incoherent picture that wastes some really good talent. For every one moment where I was impressed with the film there are three or four that had me rolling my eyes or scratching my head. Personally, that’s not the moviegoing experience I’m looking for. But who knows, maybe a second viewing would clear some things up for me.