Holy Motors is essentially unlike any movie that you’ve ever seen before and yet it draws its dramatic essence from the intrinsically familiar, from films that you have seen and the techniques used to make them that you are inherently aware of. It achieves this contradiction by approaching these safe concepts from strange directions, or at least from those that feel strange to us, that don’t track with our expectations.
In an early scene we see a man exit a house briefcase in hand while children shout put ” have fun at work daddy”; he then approaches a smart black car. We assume from this sequence that these are his kids, that he will get in the car and that he isn’t in fact already at work, that this isn’t his job; all of those assumptions are wrong, so too are most of those you have later on. Even if you are expecting the unexpected you won’t be ale to predict half of what happens in Holy, but strangely enough it still all makes some sense when seen from afar.
These surprises then are a big part of what makes the film as, dare I say it, fun as it is ( the small audience I saw it with let out some big laughs at semi-appropriate moments ) so in some ways it may be best seen with no advance knowledge besides the instinctual feelings that it so cleverly inverts. Perhaps then you should stop reading here and only return after viewing the oddity, chances are that you’ll want to discuss it then.
At the same time though it’s not really a film that I feel I could spoil or answer. The film opens with a shot nearly identical to that of Amour only the audience reflected here are all either asleep or dead and instead of then focusing in on one of these viewers it retreats and follows a character as he makes a rather Freudian entrance into the cinema. This sequence sets the tone but not the scene since the set and it’s characters are actually never seen again.
The actual story is a series of drastically different vignettes, each built around an ‘appointment’ that the aptly named main character Oscar must make it to in his oversized limousine. This setting them evokes Cosmopolis in many ways, fitting since it is also a film about artifice, but a very specific style of it. The theme that all of the scenes espouse upon is obvious fairly early on: Holy Motors doesn’t just exploit cinematic conventions, they are it’s core, it’s concept. It is a film about acting.
The film that Carax has created here is in many ways a farcical one, it is taking the idea of ‘the actor’ and exaggerating it beyond the boundaries of sanity and superficiality. The ‘appointments’ that Oscar – perhaps Academy to his friends – makes are akin to roles: he dresses for them in character, wears wigs, applies some magical make-up, steps out of his car and straight into a scene that no one else seems to be aware has started. He’s an actor in a film without cameras, which is a title that actually applies to us all, especially in this day and age of blogs and bio-shows.
Each appointment begins based around a certain subtype or genre – German Expressionist horror, small family drama, modern mo-cap and musical to name but a few – and executes them excellently before barging off in its own weird and wonderful directions. Lead actor Denis Lavant gives, if not the performance of his career then a veritable career of performances all in this one picture; which works since the picture in turn is presenting an entire actor’s career condensed into a day.
If that all sounds exhausting, that’s because it is but it’s meant to be. By the time we reach the final few appointments Oscar himself is ‘fatigued’, as the film constantly puts it and we like him just want the day to end. For him though this is a much more important issue because he’s starting to lose the line where the roles end and he begins, mask in merging into mask and the residue is making its way into his reality. Us though, we never had the line to lose it. There are a few sections that feel as if they could be real, but it becomes impossible to believe a single thing that happens after the first two or three times that the film tricks you.
Essentially then the film is a series of very elaborate tricks, long cons to be specific. It lets you think that you’re on the inside, behind the scenes of the big picture, and uses this against you; it lures you with a slow left and right feign then KO’s you with a punch from a third fist in its chest. There is though some sort of masochistic joy in being surprised like this and so when you combine that skeletal structure with flesh made from a love of film it’s hard for a cineaste such as myself not to adore the experience, even if I can’t honestly say that I understood it all. I know I’m not making much sense, but then neither did Holy Motors; I’m merely imitating art that imitates a life in art.