Film Review: Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s first feature in over a decade is a weird, witty and (mostly) wonderful tour de force for its director as well as his star, Denis Lavant.

Looking for the cure to the common fall prestige picture? Holy Motors should do the trick. The latest feature from French filmmaker Leos Carax—his first since Pola X way back in 1999, an extended hiatus that was due more to his difficulty securing financing for a follow-up project than any sort of creative block—Holy Motors cruises merrily along charting its own unique course. One wouldn’t be off base to describe it as a joyride; although there is a pronounced undertone of melancholy to many of the scenes (particularly later in the movie), the overall mood is often buoyant. It’s a movie where it seems like absolutely anything can happen and frequently does.

Perhaps to make up for all that time he spent away from the director’s chair, Carax has devised a conceit that essentially allows him to make five or six different movies in one. Following a brief prologue, in which a man in a hotel room (played by Carax himself in a brief cameo) unlocks a secret door that leads him into a cinema auditorium where the audience sits in silence, staring rapturously at a flickering screen, the movie introduces us to our guide for the journey we’re about to embark on, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant). Leaving what appears to be his house one morning, the middle-aged man heads for his idling limo, piloted by his regular driver Céline (Edith Scob), and climbs inside. The car pulls out of the driveway and eases onto the road, while Oscar prepares for his long day ahead, a day that will require him to don and shed numerous identities with the aid of the make-up table and costume trunk that sit amongst other props in the enormous backseat area. (Clearly, Oscar rented the vehicle from the same agency that leased Robert Pattinson his tricked-out, morphing limo in Cosmopolis.)

These identities include a motion-capture performer clad in full gimp-like, digital data-enabled regalia; a senior citizen bidding farewell to a loved one from his deathbed; the former lover of a sad-eyed woman (Aussie pop sensation Kylie Minogue); and a green-suited imp with scraggly red hair, wild eyes and a flair for the crazy. (Viewers of the 2008 feature Tokyo! will recognize this particular character—whose name is “Merde”—from the segment Carax contributed to that omnibus production, one of three shorts he made between Pola X and this movie.) Along with the lead actor, the film itself morphs its style and tone to complement each individual episode. The Merde sequence, for example, is played fast and loose, with Carax’s camera chasing after Lavant as he dashes wildly down the Paris streets, eventually ending up in a graveyard where he absconds with a glamorous model (Eva Mendes, in a largely silent cameo) and brings her back to his underground lair. In contrast, Lavant’s brief encounter with Minogue is lushly romantic, filled with longing glances, scenic backdrops and even a musical number.

Thanks to Carax’s formal command and Lavant’s remarkable, chameleon-like performance, the shifts in style between episodes feel entirely natural; even though Holy Motors is made up of distinct individual pieces, they all fit together to form a cohesive whole. (And it’s worth noting that Holy Motors really does have a clear throughline; this isn’t a David Lynch situation, where the reality of what we’re seeing is constantly in question. Strange things do occur with regular frequency here, but there’s no break in the movie’s overall continuity.)

That said, the movie’s strongest episodes, including Merde’s rampage, the motion-capture performance and an interlude that has him impersonating the concerned father of a teenage daughter, are frontloaded in its first half. When the action resumes following a brief entr’acte, Carax starts to grapple with more somber themes—loss of love, loss of life—and the whimsy of the first hour is missed, especially as the film never fully hits the emotional highs the director is reaching for. (This is sadly the case with the Minogue sequence; stylistically the scene works, but she’s just not a strong enough screen presence to pull off the drama of the moment.)

Fortunately, Holy Motors finds its smile again in the end, concluding with a delightfully odd (and entirely human-free) bit of silliness that ranks amongst the year’s funniest scenes. And that’s the chief pleasure of riding shotgun alongside Carax and Lavant on this road trip—you’re never quite sure where you’re going to end up next, but it’s always somewhere surprising.