‘Holy Motors’ Review
Leos Carax’s ‘Holy Motors’ is the best dream you’ll ever have without actually falling asleep. It’s a blast of pure, unbridled subconscious — or maybe superconscious — and a brilliant and melancholic love letter to movies, the craft of acting and life itself, which, ‘Holy Motors’ argues, are all kind of the same thing anyway.
Denis Lavant stars, and he gives all 11 of the best performances of the year — whoever wins the Best Actor Oscar next February should immediately refuse the award and hand it over to him. His main role is a man named Oscar, who spends the movie getting chauffeured through Paris in a white stretch limousine, going from one “appointment” to the next. At each one, he assumes a new identity and acts out a role. At one stop, he might play a shy teenager’s disappointed father. At another, he could become an old beggar woman panhandling on a bridge.
What exactly these appointments are for is never made explicitly clear (one of the film’s pleasures is the inevitable post-screening debate about their meaning). Trying to attach a logical framework to ‘Holy Motors’ is probably a mistake, but it’s fun to try anyway. Is Oscar dead? Is he some sort of angel? Does he work in the universe’s collective unconscious, traveling between other people’s dreams to offer them advice or support? Is the superficial narrative merely a disguise — and the movie is nothing if not a series of disguises — for an investigation of the craft of acting? Your guess is as good as mine.
What is clear to me is that whatever else it is or is not about, ‘Holy Motors’ is an incredibly powerful statement about the lingering magic — and untapped potential — of movies, even in an age when the old models of moviegoing are dying and the new models of distribution are under threat from piracy and new cultural media. The film opens with a series of shots of one of the earliest silent movies, and then cuts to an movie theater audience, staring up at the screen with rapt attention. Another cut to a man in a hotel room, waking from a dream. He wanders past a window, to a wall with forest-themed wallpaper. One of his fingers grows into a strange metallic key, he presses it into the forest wall and opens a hidden door. Inside he finds a passage, which leads back to the movie theater. It’s an endless feedback loop: movies are dreams, dreams are movies. Which means that if one dies, so might the other.
By moving between all these roles, Lavant’s Oscar isn’t just showing us something about the nature of acting, he’s also representing something about the nature of moviegoing. The act of watching a film is the act of living in someone’s shoes for two hours; a stuntman choreographing the next megabudget spectacular, or a troll harassing Eva Mendes (who deserves her own Oscar for the movie: Best Sport About Having a Creepy Troll Guy With a Crooked Penis Lie on Her Like a Baby).
There is a clear sense throughout ‘Holy Motors’ that Carax is mourning an era that’s ending: one of Oscar’s co-workers at his mysterious place of employment notes that he doesn’t seem as invested in his work as he used to be, and he agrees that he’s frustrated by the way things have changed (in movies? in dreams? in life?) in recent years. Archives of early cinema, audiences getting together to watch things in a darkened rooms, in a few years these things could be gone. We live in uncertain times, cinematically speaking.
What makes ‘Holy Motors’ so powerful and so exciting, though, is the way it communicates the continuing promise of cinema through sheer moviemaking verve. The movie has action, sex, violence, love, death, computer graphics, musical numbers and even an intermission featuring an accordion hoedown. You never know where Carax and Lavant are headed next. The mood may occasionally get a bit funereal, but it always rebounds with more excitement and more energy. You walk out of the movie happy to be alive and happy to be a movie lover, off in search of your next role.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’