Cult Cinema: Holy Motors

Andrew reviews the avant-garde meditation on acting, Holy Motors.

Second to David Lynch's Inland Empire, Leos Carax's Holy Motors is a surreal, often dreamy science fiction influenced autocritique about what it truly means to be an actor.  Starring longtime Carax collaborator Denis Levant, the film concerns a man named Oscar who with other actors is assigned via a cavernous limousine to act out several distinctly different roles in public although no cameras appear to be recording his actions.  The first and likely only production of Carax's created in a fully digital workflow, the film functions as a comment on the medium used to make the film as well as chronicling every aspect of the chameleonic actor's journey from day until night.  Receiving special instructions from his driver Celine (Edith Scob), Oscar switches disguises before being dropped off to the next location and eventually picked up for the next.  Drawing from Eyes Without a Face, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis as well as Carax's own short film Merde for the anthological film Tokyo!, Holy Motors is a tragicomic love letter to all of the facets and experiences that encompass embodying a character all the while critiquing the potentially alienating nature of the acting business.  In one of the film's most telling sequences, Oscar crosses paths with Eva/Jean (Kylie Minogue), another tired actress who may or may not have had close relations to Oscar in the past as she sings notes of lamentation and romantic longing in a climactic musical number.  While acting might all be just pretend, there's a tangible, connective human emotion that cannot be ignored and as Malcolm McDowell wisely recalled his experiences working with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange, it begins as an "intense working relationship" which will ultimately "separate" once the work is finished.  

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Director Carax's use of digital photography lensed by both Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape is at once painterly and ultimately meta considering Carax's disdain for the format.  Initially planned as a 35mm production, difficulty in financing this strange and often self-aware production ultimately forced the auteur to resort to digital.  In so doing, he made a film whose format only informs the sterilized disconnect between Oscar's humanity and the plasticine caricatures he portrays.  In addition to working his Tokyo! character into the film, replete with the theme to 1954's Gojira dominating the soundtrack, Holy Motors follows Oscar doing green screen capture work for a videogame, playing a vagrant, criminals, an accordionist and even a dying man.  At one point he even runs into a doppleganger which he slays and when he returns home from a long and hard day of work, we see that his wife and child are chimpanzees.  All of this sounds really perversely surreal and otherworldly but in fact there's a very clear social commentary going on that vies for the actor whose constant changeovers into people other than themselves is most certainly a professional joy but not without moments of emptiness.  Oscar mid-film remarks he remains in the profession for the 'beauty of the act', a line of dialogue you could argue is the heart of the film, conveying the experience of a day in the life of an actor before returning to his humdrum regular life.  Moreover, there's a question of who at the end of the day is watching all these hard earned efforts, informed by an opening scene of a catatonic audience watching the film we're about to see.  We take cinema for granted because we see so many images without thinking twice about how hard it is to create a character we see onscreen, until now.

Upon initial viewing, Holy Motors will likely confound you and there are still numerous anecdotes peppered throughout the film that seem destined to elude viewers.  Like the great surrealists Luis Bunuel, David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, there's a method to the madness however underlying every scene and the narrative structure of the film itself.  Most will take the film as episodic looniness and there are a number of scenes designed to make you chuckle at the strange conviction Denis Levant brings to the characters.  It goes without saying Levant is a force of nature, completely transforming into several wholly different people several times over through the course of the picture.  Not since Tom Hardy's work in Bronson has an actor transformed so completely throughout the movie and the frame of the image can barely contain the larger than life performance unfolding.  Even if you don't appreciate Carax's film for being largely impenetrable and even pretentious to some, it's hard to not be blown away by Denis Levant's work on the picture.  Despite the intentional gaps in reality and almost confrontational subversion of what we know as narrative storytelling, leaning closer to pure cinema than conventional formulas, this is a brilliantly poignant muse on the often alienating and lonely art of acting that will make you think twice about the lives of those who break their backs, sacrifice their anonymity and in some ways disappear from the world of the living to create the very moving images we all too often take for granted.  


- Andrew Kotwicki