Holy Motors is not a film for those looking for a strong storyline or for conventional entertainment. It’s not a film for the artistically squeamish or for those with no time to give to experimental cinema that is unconcerned with pleasing its audience and often downright absurd. It is one of the more exhilarating cinematic experiences I’ve seen in the last year or so – although it is definitely not for everyone.
A plot summary is relatively easy to give yet beside the point to some extent, because the film’s effect mostly lies in how it does what it does. A man named Monsieur Oscar is driven from one mysterious engagement to another – nine, all in all – by his elderly female chauffeur. In the spacious back of the stretch limousine he puts on make-up and one costume after another, slipping into wildly different roles: an old, possibly Romanian beggar woman, a motion-capture actor in an altogether too fetishistic rubber suit, an anarchic sewer-dwelling troll-like creature, a scarred killer – as well as his lowlife mobster victim – but also a middle-aged father driving his daughter home and an old man dying in his bed. Even when he goes home at night, his home is another fiction entirely different from the home he left in the morning, his family (in a disconcertingly funny revelation) made up of chimpanzees. Everything is a part, it’s fictions all the way down. Is there a real Monsieur Oscar beneath the masks, the make-up and the (for the most part ostensively stylised) scenes he plays? Does he even know himself? (The ambiguity of that question was unintended, but it is quite fitting.)
It’s not only the protagonist’s ontological state that is questioned; only one scene makes explicit that the person Monsieur Oscar interacts with is also an actor (possibly with her own stretch limo and chauffeur, unless these are reserved for the more seasoned actors), but the strangeness of the different scenes and the reactions of the people whose lives cross with his at least make us wonder whether most if not all the people in the universe of Holy Motors are simply moving from one acting engagement to the next. Now you’re a photo model. Now you’re a receptionist. Now you’re a lover. Now you’re a mourner. Now you’re dead (your gravestone linking to your personal website in one of the film’s offbeat jokes).
The film has been interpreted as being about cinema, although its director Leos Carax has denied this interpretation. More likely, at least to my mind, it is about how our lives are made up of roles and how in many of them we have precious little agency of our own. We put on our costumes, our masks, and we act what we think is required of the part. Not particularly new or original, I grant – but then, as I mentioned earlier, Holy Motors works largely because of its verve and energy, the conviction with which it and its main star Denis Lavant throw themselves into the different episodes. An art house film this is, obviously, but not the po-faced or even the self-consciously, needily quirky kind of film that sometimes feels as generic and by-the-numbers as the latest Bayfest or Snyderama. Holy Motors‘ energy is more anarchic, at times downright punk, though it is not in your face in every single scene.
In one sequence, the film indeed aims for something more poignant. Its themes of alienation and loss of identity (if indeed there ever was an identity to lose) may already hint as such poignancy, but it comes to the fore when Monsieur Oscar comes upon another stretch limo, finding in its back a former lover called Eva, played by Kylie Minogue. The two, having half an hour between engagements, talk about the twenty years they have to catch up on, and Eva sings a sad song about the people they once were before she sends Monsieur Oscar away. As he exits the building where they talked, he sees that Eva apparently has committed suicide by throwing herself off the roof. The sequence and especially Minogue’s song is superficially affecting, but it suffers from the films ontological twists and turns: we’ve seen the protagonist get stabbed and (apparently) bleed out, yet character death only meant that it was time for the next role. Why shouldn’t Eva get up, brush off the dust and hop into her limo the moment we’re not watching any more? What makes one death more real than another – and if death isn’t real for these actors, what is the point of the sequence and its underlying sadness? Holy Motors seems to come down heavily on the side of nothing being real, everything being an act, but then it can’t really have its cake and eat it.
Except it could. On stage more often than on the screen, I’ve seen performances that held the brittle balance between emotional authenticity and obvious artifice, where a character’s death mattered even while you are fully aware of the actor living and breathing. We are capable of buying into a fiction with our hearts and minds while knowing it’s a fiction. Holy Motors could have done this, and as a result the Kylie Minogue sequence would have gained a resonance that is hinted at but finally remains out of the film’s reach. However, as a result the film might have lost some of its anarchic energy: part of what makes it work is that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, that it revels in its own ridiculousness. As it is, Monsieur Oscar’s meeting with Eva is something of an irritating foreign body in the film: it is streaked with sadness, yet Holy Motors would seem to render this sadness a non sequitur. (In fact, other than the actors’ words, we have little evidence that this is not another one of Monsieur Oscar’s engagements, although one that adds an even more pronounced metafictional turn of the screw.)
Regardless of this, which others seeing the film might respond to altogether differently , Holy Motors is well worth checking out. It is inventive, evocative, often funny (if you like your humour absurd), and it may just have the most rousing entr’acte in all of cinema. And that’s not even mentioning the gratuitously grotesque prosthetic hard-on, which is a more believable special effect than anything encountered in Sharknado.