Trois! Douze! Merde!
The above quote is from the film Holy Motors, specifically from the film’s intermission – essentially a short music video (inspired by OK Go’s now-classic This Too Shall Pass), in which the protagonist, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), performs a cover of R. L. Burnside’s Let my Baby Ride on accordion while walking through a medieval church with an ever-expanding ragtag orchestra following behind him. In many ways this short scene is characteristic of the film as a whole, presenting as it does a number of different cultural influences filtered through the distinct lens of director Léos Carax, set in a very Parisian setting, and with the extremely charismatic Lavant as the ever-present guiding light, his unmistakable yet ever-changing face squarely in the center of the picture. And, of course, someone loudly yells “merde” in the middle of the scene.
What follows is a review of the film, if it is even possible to write an actual review of this crazy, beautiful, and incomprehensible piece of cinema. It is very hard to talk about Carax’ work without potentially spoiling parts of the experience, so really my main recommendation is this: Don’t read another word about Holy Motors. Don’t watch any trailers, teasers, or compilations. Just find a place that is showing it, and go watch it on the big screen. Then come back and read and talk about it all you want. Or maybe just ignore the chatter, and go watch the thing a second time instead. It is that good.
With the exception of a brief opening scene, involving an unnamed man waking up and walking into a movie theater in which an audience is watching the silent movie The Crowd, the film follows a single day in the life of the mysterious M. Oscar. He travels the streets of Paris in a white stretch limousine, with the chauffeur Céline (Édith Scob, of the 1960 French horror classic Les yeux sans visage) keeping him company and providing him with ongoing assignments from the Agency – ostensibly the organization behind all the charades, which is, of course, never explained fully or even partially. These assignments involves taking on the role of various characters and engaging in a wide range of activities, all centered around specific genres with their own tropes and narrative devices. Thus we see M. Oscar take the guise of a gangster, a female beggar, an elderly man on his deathbed, a down-on-his-luck dad, and even the bizzarre, subterranean creature of Merde (originally appearing in Carax’ segment of the anthology film Tokyo!). All of these different scenes (representing Oscar’s nine assignments) are seemingly independent from each other, tied together only by the presence of our protagonist. They are laced with cultural and cinematic references, subtly and not-so-subtly commenting on everything from the spectacle, beauty, and shallowness of the film industry to the nature of loneliness, identity, and life in modernity.
What little plot there is to be found in Holy Motors is more like a thin red thread, tying together the disparate scenes by way of M. Oscar’s itinerary. We do get glimpses into the world of the performer and the agency that employs him (including a visit from one of its shadowy producers and a run-in with a fellow actor, played by Kylie Minogue), but anyone looking for an actual coherent narrative in the film will be sorely disappointed. Rather, what is offered is a visual and theatrical spectacle; a sly commentary, which relies heavily on the interpretation of its audience; and, perhaps above all, a powerful performance by Lavant that is not soon to be forgotten.
Carax is a clever and talented director. His last outing was the 1999 shocker Pola X (based in part on Melville’s novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities), one of the pioneers of what has since become known as the New French Extremism, but Holy Motors is an altogether more realized and artistic film. It recalls some of the sadness and beauty of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (also starring Lavant), but leaves behind a lot of the painfully obvious influences of French New Wave, and of Goddard in particular, so visible in Cravax’ earlier work, replacing these with a much more direct and playful riffing on cinematic history, making this film in some ways the most mature piece from the filmmaker yet. In a 2009 interview with IndieWire’s Eric Hynes, Carax said that he was at once not a real filmmaker and the only filmmaker in the world: “I feel that cinema is my country. But it’s not my business. I haven’t worked enough, and I don’t get along with people enough to make it my business.” That cinema is his country and film his native language is absolutely clear when watching Holy Motors. Here is hoping that we will not have to wait another decade or more for his next feature-length work.