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Movie Reviews

Holy Motors



Reviewer: Craig Williams

Director: Leos Carax

Stars: Eva Mendes, Denis Lavant, Edith Scob

Released: 28th September 2012

Holy Motors is the first film in over thirteen years from the erratic but extraordinarily talented French director Leos Carax. It’s a work of thematic and technical audacity, underpinned by a wild creativity. A deeply personal film, Holy Motors is paradoxically Carax’s most revealing work to date but also his most impenetrable, tackling the concept of life as performance.

The film follows Oscar (Denis Lavant) being driven around Paris is a white limousine by his chauffeur Céline (Édith Scob). Oscar has nine mysterious “appointments” to perform along the way before the end of the day, the details of which are set out in a series of folders provided to him by Céline. Each one involves Oscar getting into a new disguise, with the back of the limousine taking on the characteristics of a theatre dressing room, complete with an old-fashioned lighted mirror. The appointments themselves range from dressing as an old woman and begging on a bridge to becoming an impish and incomprehensible monstrosity in a green suit crashing a photo shoot in the Père Lachaise cemetery and kidnapping a model (Eva Mendes).

Carax has always been a personal filmmaker, but not in the traditional sense. Lavant, the lead in every Carax film except 1999’s radical Melville adaptation Pola X, has always played a rough variation of the same character named Alex. It is tempting to see this character as Carax’s on-screen alter-ego. Indeed, Carax’s real name is Alex (his second name, like Lavant’s in Holy Motors, is Oscar) and there are numerous coded personal references which continually recur throughout Carax’s work; from the use of the same character names to small character details (e.g. Alex in Mauvais Sang rarely spoke as a child, much like Carax).

In Holy Motors, the personal references are not so much coded as they are fragmented, abstracted and manipulated. It is significant that the film opens with Carax himself waking up, using his middle finger as a door key and walking onto the balcony of a cinema as a film plays on screen. What are we to make of this? Perhaps Oscar’s odyssey through Paris is Carax’s dream playing on screen, revealing his own fragmentary perceptions of who he is, laden with anxieties and grotesque caricatures.

A number of Oscar’s appointments lend themselves to such a reading; the single father of a teenage girl (like Carax), the man shooting the financier (Carax has a notoriously troubled relationship with film backers) and the man sent to kill his own doppelganger (with its myriad Freudian undertones). The appointments are also full of references to Carax’s own films, including an emotionally significant moment which happens on the building that looms over Lavant and Juliette Binoche in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf to the re-appearance of the “Monsieur Merde” character from Carax’s section of portmanteau film Tokyo!.

Regardless of the personal dimension, the film works remarkably well and a comic piece of playful surrealism. Each appointment is gloriously unpredictable – occasionally shocking and frequently ludicrous. Some audiences may find their patience tested by the drastic switches in tone, but if this is life as performance, then all aspects of life will be represented, whether literal or metaphorical. This means there are moments of poignant realism, like an old man’s final conversation with his niece on his deathbed, as well as moments of comic fantasy, like a man returning home to a houseful of monkeys.

There is much to enjoy too in the variety of cinematic references. Cocteau’s coded personal references are a clear touch point thematically, but Holy Motors also contains references to Jean-Luc Godard, Vincente Minnelli and David Lynch. A particular highlight for horror fans will be seeing Édith Scob wearing a mask which refers her career-defining role in Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without A Face). Mark Cousins has already called the film “Citizen Kane through the looking glass” but for me, the dream-like episodes of creative anxiety make it Fellini’s 8 ½ down the rabbit hole.

At the centre of this storm of imagination and creativity is Lavant’s staggering performance which is nothing short of miraculous. He simply dominates the screen in every role, whether it’s kidnapping Eva Mendes or reminiscing about a past romance with Kylie Minogue. It’s doubtful we will see a more commanding performance this year.

It’s inevitable that some will find Holy Motors to be an exacerbating case of the emperor’s new clothes. Indeed, such is the case with any film which offers itself up to such a broad range of interpretations. But Holy Motors is a stunning piece of surrealist self-portraiture which is both unpretentious and terrifically enjoyable. The significance of the title is revealed towards the end of the film and manages to broaden the film’s gaze and cement its approach to life as performance. My film of the year so far.

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