One of the darlings of the 2012 festival circuit, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors delivers a pure cinematic experience designed to confront and challenge our understanding of the art form at every level. At the risk of over-simplifying a film that is anything but simple, Holy Motors is a film about the cinema as it stands today, and the deft ways in which Carax explores various aspects of his subject, whether addressing film-makers themselves, we the audience, or even the debate over physical versus digital media, are so rich and dense that it is impossible to absorb it all after a single viewing. As such it is sure to alienate and infuriate perhaps the majority of viewers, yet those who find themselves swept up in the abstract beauty of it all are in for an inspiring, enlightening, and at times overwhelming two hours.
Holy Motors follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (a mind-boggling Denis Lavant), an actor whose roles seem to take place out in the real world rather than on the stage or screen. As Oscar is ferried from one assignment to the next by his faithful limousine driver Céline (Edith Scob), so too does writer-director Carax transport us to his next discussion point. Each surreal vignette is presented without much in the way of explanation, and Carax refuses to hold the hand of the audience, instead offering viewers the chance to piece the film together themselves. Similarly, Lavant’s remarkable performance can turn without warning, shifting the entire film’s tone from tragic to comical at a moment’s notice, further disorienting the audience. While some of Oscar’s ‘roles’ have illuminating punchlines to ease our understanding, the majority are much more conceptual, and will demand repeat viewings to unpack before Carax’s intentions for the piece as a whole will become clear, if they ever will.
In a year where chatter surrounding huge tent-pole releases is choking social media and online communities, Holy Motors is the film that most deserves to be discussed, and debates about the film amongst cinéastes are likely already in full swing. While the audience who will really connect with the film is going to be comparatively small, nothing has offered this much to chew on for some time, and its value to those who appreciate it will only increase over time. Holy Motors cannot really be approached effectively in a brief review such as this, as it’s not exactly an easy film to recommend or not given that each individual could potentially take something different from seeing it. But for those seeking a respite from the mindlessness of blockbuster season, seeing Holy Motors is a no-brainer. Carax almost forces the audience into an intellectual tug-of-war without ever feeling like he is talking down to us, rather that he wants us to reconsider the world of cinema, and not least of all our own place in it.