Holy Motors

Holy Motors. Holy shit!

Léos Carax's new film is virtually unexplainable, bordering on the divine and the absurd, but I'll do my best. Here's the trailer, which gives us little other than an eerie tone:

The film opens with a shot of a sold-out dark movie theater. The spectators are in their seats, but while we watch them, they don't watch us -- they're sleeping. Then, we watch a middle-aged man (Carax himself) rise out of bed, break a hole in his wall, and emerge onto a balcony overlooking this theater, in which a huge black dog slinks down the aisle. Fade to black, and with this prologue we know that we are in the realm of the surreal.

But quickly we latch onto a narrative. Oscar (Denis Lavant) goes off to work in a limo one morning (with echoes of his kids' words "travaille bien, papa!" trailing him). We assume that the meetings detailed in the folder next to him are the kinds typical of businessmen in suits and ties, but they're not. When Oscar emerges from the limo for his first "meeting" on a Paris bridge, he has transformed into a hunchbacked beggar shaking a can for cash. A joke? We think. A social commentary? But no. His next meeting finds him in a black motion-capture suit, dotted with white pins. Ahhh, we get it. He's a film stunt man.

But in the nine "meetings" that make up the film, this stuntman performs for no cameras, at least no cameras the audience can see. We watch Oscar contort his body and physique with makeup, costume, and sheer talent, but throughout the nine "scenes" in the film, each is autonomous. We feel we know less and less about our protagonist, and the question "who is Oscar, really?" is never answered.  The only continuity in the film is the limo where Oscar returns after each impersonation (or should we say identity? Each feels as authentic as the last), and its driver, Céline. Furthermore, as Oscar absorbs completely into each role, the scenes feel incredibly rich in themselves, albeit frustrating as we know they'll be gone soon. Among others, he is (or performs as?) an abrasive father to a teenage daughter, a madman in a cemetery who kidnaps Eva Mendes and brings her into Paris's underground tunnels, Kylie Minogue's lost lover, a violent assassin, and a dying uncle. But are the others in his "scenes" also actors? Sometimes we get hints that they are, sometimes we think he may have been living these lives simultaneously. Most importantly, though, it doesn't matter. This is a hard feeling to shake for mainstream filmgoers like me. I crave narrative continuity, perhaps because Hollywood has conditioned me.

What Holy Motors strives to propose, rather, is that a film is for watching -- that it's all a spectacle. We must be reminded of the movie-theater opening in order to remember this, otherwise we will spend too much time trying to figure out who Oscar is (like I did, until I gave up and was much happier as a result). But the beauty of the film is that itself: its beauty.

There were two points during Holy Motors where I was enveloped by giddy amazement. As a movie lover, moments like these are the reason for my addiction. First, Oscar on the black motion-capture stage as a mirage of white dots was mesmerizing. Here, a slight slow-motion effect made the difference between an ordinary body performing martial arts and a dazzling, almost inhuman array of agility, grace and speed. Images like this are achieved only in cinema; even when you see them, you almost don't believe them.

Second, as a literal "entracte," Oscar steps into a candlelit church with accordion in hand. He starts playing, and suddenly he is flanked by dozens of accordion, guitar, and percussion players. With perfect acoustics in both the church and the theater in Copenhagen where I sat, I felt actually pretty close to crying. Cinema, for me, provides that sensory blend of overwhelming sound and visual beauty. I was grinning uncontrollably, with powerful goosebumps and a near weightlessness. While it hardly does the theater experience justice, here's the scene:

So, please see Holy Motors. You may be frustrated, confused, and melancholy when watching, but I guarantee you will also be exhilarated and in awe.

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