144. HOLY MOTORS (2012)

“Weird… weird.. weird! He’s so weird!”–delighted fashion photographer at his first glimpse of Merde


FEATURING: , , , Kylie Minogue, ,

PLOT: A man wakes up and walks through a secret panel in his bedroom wall that leads him into a cinema. Next we meet “Mr. Oscar,”who drives around Paris in a limousine taking on nine “assignments” which require him to become an accordion player, a hitman, and fashion model-abducting leprechaun, among other personae. After Mr. Oscar’s night is over, his chauffeur drives the limo back to a huge car lot labeled “Holy Motors,” where hundreds of similar vehicles are stored.

Still from Holy Motors (2012)


  • Holy Motors was Leos Carax’ first feature film since 1999’s Pola X.
  • Leos Carax is a pseudonym for Alexandre Oscar Dupont. In most of Carax’ other movies, Denis Lavant plays a lead character named “Alex.” Here he plays a character named “Mr. Oscar” (a name which is itself hidden inside the pseudonym leOS CARax).
  • The flower-eating leprechaun character, “Merde,” first appeared in Carax’ segment in the omnibus movie Tokyo! (2008).
  • The role of Mr. Oscar was specifically written for Lavant.
  • Carax originally wanted to credit Michel Piccoli (who is difficult to recognize under his makeup) under a pseudonym, but word of the actor’s involvement in the project was leaked.
  • Carax says he does not like to shoot on digital film, but did so because he found it made fundraising easier.
  • Holy Motors swept the Weirdest Actor (Denis Lavant), Weirdest Scene (the accordion intermission), and Weirdest Movie categories in our 2012 Weirdcademy Awards contest.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The character of Merde, the gimpy, gibbering, flower-eating subterranean leprechaun-creature, who was so unforgettable Carax recycled him from his segment in the triptych Tokyo!. For a single snapshot that captures Merde’s hard-to-define charm, we select the moment when he bites off a woman’s finger, then licks supermodel Eva Mendes, leaving a trail of blood on her armpit. Ever the professional, she never breaks her expression of sultry indifference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Holy Motors is overwrought, pretentious, obscure, scatterbrained, confusing, and self-indulgent—all qualities that, when matched with talent, typically make for a great work of weird art. Prepare to be perplexed. You won’t, however, be bored.

Original trailer for Holy Motors

COMMENTS: Seen as a showcase for the chameleonic talents of Denis Lavant, Holy Motors is an unqualified masterpiece. Lavant officially plays eleven roles—presumably his nine “assignments,” his base character of “Mr. Oscar,” and his assignment from the previous night. (There actually may be more parts, depending on how you count, since during some scenes Lavant doppelgänger show up in minor bits, and at other times it’s not clear if he’s involved in another performance or if he’s being himself. This kind of indeterminacy is Holy Motors stock in trade). There are no connections between the characters he is assigned: some, like Merde, are purely absurd, some are musical, and some performances are legitimately moving moments. In the course of one cinematic day, Lavant plays a businessman, a gypsy beggar woman, a knife-wielding thug, a trans-species hubby and a transgressive monster; in more conventional dramatic interludes he disciplines a lying daughter and reunites with an old lover. He even finds time to put on a motion capture suit and perform random acrobatics in front of a green screen; for his heroics, he’s rewarded with a blond in an skintight catsuit, with whom he simulates intercourse for some sort of avant-garde alien porn virtual reality simulation. He dies multiple times. Each segment operates according to its own internal illogic. The roles are arbitrary, like the jobs any working actor would take: this month an action hero, next month a dying benefactor. At times we see, or at least think we see, hints of the “real” person behind Mr. Oscar, but mostly we see him applying his makeup in front of his mobile vanity mirror, preparing to disappear into a new role. Who is Mr. Oscar?

The very name “Mr. Oscar” evokes, ironically, the idea of an Academy Award, one for which this archetypal thespian acting on an absurd stage for an unknown audience will never be eligible. The performance is the thing for Mr. Oscar, although he is paid for his work. Scenes that seem to involve Mr. Oscar as “real” person may turn out to be part of another assignment; if we try to figure out who he really is, we’re continually frustrated. His conversations with his driver, Céline (Edith Scob), are mostly business related, although there are hints they are old friends (or at least longtime colleagues). It is only when he is backstage in the limousine, which doubles as his dressing room and his office, that we can even hope to glimpse the “real” Oscar. He receives one visitor there (Michel Piccoli), who, like Céline, appears to be an insider in whatever metaphysical performance industry this crew working for. Is Piccoli’s character an agent, a producer, a representative of the audience, a messenger from God? Whoever he is, he critiques Mr. Oscar’s acting, suggesting that he is growing weary and his performances less convincing. They discuss the evolution of cameras, which have now shrunk to the point where they are invisible. What keeps Mr. Oscar going, the man asks? “The beauty of the act” is Mr. Oscar’s response, and that confession of devotion to his art is all we will learn of importance about his character.

We wonder if there are others roaming the Paris streets in limos like Mr. Oscar, fellow cast members. The better question, perhaps, is whether all of Holy Motors‘ world is a stage, and all its people merely actors. Still, a fender bender between Mr. Oscar’s limo and an identical vehicle poses the possibility of a revealing moment. Inside is one of Mr. Oscar’s colleagues, a woman with whom, it seems, he has a past. There is the teasing suggestion here we may get a peek at the reality behind the illusion, and score some juicy gossip about the real love lives of these wandering actors. Not surprisingly, the musical number and melodramatic gesture that follows leave us wondering whether this isn’t another scripted performance, a bonus scene. Is there any sincerity in this world, or is it all an act?

And what about Céline, the other major character? Is she merely a functionary, a small cog in whatever machine is driving these performances? Does she exist outside of her job ferrying Mr. Oscar about? She seems to. Céline figures prominently in the epilogue, playing on after Mr. Oscar has finished his final assignment and gone to bed. She garages the limo, then dons a mask. Is the chauffeuse job is just a role for her? And the limos themselves, the dozens and dozens we see sleeping at the carpark at Holy Motors: what role do they play? What do they think of all this?

There is one more character to consider: “le dormeur,” the sleeper, played by Leos Carax himself. The sleeper begins the film, in one of the movie’s best and most mysterious sequences. Awakening from slumber, he walks to the far side of his apartment which is wallpapered with a picture of a dark forest. He feels along the wall until he locates a hole; suddenly his finger becomes a long metal tube which acts as a key. The door in the wall opens up onto a balcony; in a cinema below a still, stone-faced audience stares up in silence at the screen. Babies and beasts stalk the aisles, and the movie playing on the screen is—Holy Motors. Rarely does man behind the curtain show himself in the very first scene. A double of Carax will appear later in the film, as a fashion photographer wearing the director’s trademark smoked hipster glasses who says “beautiful! beautiful! beautiful!” of Eva Mendes and “weird! weird! weird!” of Merde. Carax, the sleeper, the dreamer, the director, the god, is the second biggest character in the movie. The quote the director chooses to preface Holy Motors‘ pressbook, from Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Everything and Nothing,” is instructive: “I,” God tells the poet Shakespeare, “have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work… and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”

Holy Motors has fabulous set pieces and startling images. And yet, while the craftsmanship and intelligence behind it is clear, and I even felt an obscure sort of abstract sympathy for Mr. Oscar during his weary ride through the Paris night, something about the movie seems slightly unfinished. I can’t locate a great idea organizing the entire enterprise, just a series of small ones. Holy Motors doesn’t reject the real world so much as it seems unacquainted with it; it only seems familiar with its fellow films. The movie’s title suggests a mechanical play on the name “Hollywood,” which of course is also known as the dream factory. There’s Mr. “Oscar,” there’s the cinema that’s literally dreamt, there are the performances which sequentially evoke different film genres, there are the intertextual references to other movies (most obviously to Eyes Without a Face and Breathless). There is the shop talk between Oscar and the man with the birthmark about cameras and they way they are getting smaller. All of this suggests a movie that is essentially about movies and moviemaking. This is not a movie like The Player, which is about the business of making movies as executed by real human beings with loves, passions and flaws. Here we struggle to know the “real” Mr. Oscar, who is buried (perhaps irretrievably) under layers of performance, wrapped up inside his own movie-ness. Holy Motors is full of characterizations, but not characters. It’s this postmodern navel-gazing, the suggestion that cinema qua cinema is the only thing cinema is capable of addressing, that leaves me a bit cold.

To his credit, I think Carax is aware of this objection. In his New York Times interview, he stresses, “The film speaks the language of cinema, but it’s not a film about cinema… I created a world—not our world exactly but not that far, either—and I tried to show the experience of being alive in this world.” That world is anchored by a bravura suite of performances by Lavant, whom Carax appoints to capture the whole strange and tragic spectrum of human activity in a single day. In Carax’ eyes this spectrum involves motion-capture sex scenes, accordion intermissions, and chimpanzee marriages. I’m not sure I agree with Carax that this world is not that far from our own, but I do believe it’s a place worth visiting. It boasts some awesome sights.


“…weird and wonderful, rich and strange – barking mad, in fact. It is wayward, kaleidoscopic, black comic and bizarre; there is in it a batsqueak of genius, dishevelment and derangement; it is captivating and compelling.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

“I may be better off just dropping a lot of clues about the weird and exhilarating visual, emotional and intellectual voyage of ‘Holy Motors,’ rather than trying to explain it… ‘Holy Motors’ is a bizarre transcendent experience more than an ordinary movie, and watching it is about having that experience and puzzling it out as you go, whether that means laughing out loud or feeling outraged and betrayed or saving up questions to debate with your friends afterward… it’s the coolest and strangest movie of the year…”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

“Devoid of meaning and designed to shock, its mixture of religious and sexual imagery is preceded by a photographer excitedly screaming the word ‘Weird!’ as he photographs Oscar’s latest creation. In doing so he sums up Holy Motors’ inherent limitation: a reliance on outlandish imagery over genuine depth… The result is something of an anomaly, both some way short of greatness and utterly essential.”–Andrew Simpson, “Fan the Fire” (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: HOLY MOTORS | OFFICIAL US WEBSITE – Synopsis & background information, trailer, quotes from glowing reviews, and an exhaustive list of awards won

IMDB LINK: Holy Motors (2012)


Holy Motors Press Kit (pdf) – Hosted at the Cannes Film Festival site; it contains many images, an interview with Carax and brief tributes by the director to his cast

Leos Carax Makes ‘Holy Motors’ With Film History’s Help – Profile of Leos Carax on the eve of Holy Motors‘ release by The New York Times‘ Dennis Lim

Kylie Minogue and ‘Holy Motors’ director Leos Carax talk to Peter Bradshaw – A videotaped interview courtesy of The Guardian

Holy Motors – Movie info: cast, reviews, trailer on mubi.com – Mubi’s movie page is a place for fans to post their love for the film; there’s also a sidebar full of (sometimes marginally) related links

Virtual Refractions 1: “Holy Motors” (The Living Screen) – This essay from David Phelps starts with a comparison of Holy Motors to Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and “flâneur films,” but ultimately obscures more than it elucidates

Censorship and Holy Motors – A blogger rants about streaming services blurring Lavant’s penis

List Candidate: Holy Motors (2012) – Our original capsule review of the theatrical release

DVD INFO: Indomina released a DVD (buy) in Region 1. Although it reportedly has top-notch picture and sound, it apparently contains no extra features; for those, you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray version (buy). For the extra double sawbuck you’ll get not only high-definition video, but a 45-minute “making of” doc, a 13-minute interview with Kylie Minogue (who promoted the hell out of the movie), and two versions of the trailer.

A 2018 Shout! Select Blu-ray (buy) improves slightly on Indomina’s release; it includes all of the same extras from the older Blu, plus two new Carax interviews and the complete “Merde” segment from Tokyo! (which I liked better than his appearance in Motors). It also claims to be uncensored (see below).

Holy Motors is also available for rental via video on demand services (rent). A word of warning: Denis Lavant’s brief erection has been digitally fogged on all streaming versions by the video distributor. I estimate that this phallic obfuscation will diminish your enjoyment and understanding of the film by approximately %0.005, but anti-censorship absolutists will want to observe the digital boycott.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who said it was “weird, weird, weird. You already guessed, I know that, but right now I’m making it official. For once, I’m pretty confident it’s going to make its way to the List…” . Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

8 thoughts on “144. HOLY MOTORS (2012)”

  1. The following comment was originally left on our “List Candidate” entry. We’ve moved it here to facilitate discussion.

    Rob Steele
    March 12, 2013 at 4:26 am

    Here was my introduction to “Holy Motors.” I saw a banner ad for the movie on Rotten Tomatoes which featured the girl in the spandex outfit. That got me interested enough to look it up further. If you’ve seen the movie, that interest pays off in spades.

    My second interest, after watching the trailer, was the inclusion of the actor Denis Lavant, who I recognized from one of the best music videos of the late ’90s, UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights.” If you’ve seen the movie, that interest pays off in spades. The man acts his ass off in multiple complete transformations.

    Sadly, the act of watching the actual movie did not pay off in actual spades, at least for me. (And what are these spades we’re talking about?) It’s a weird movie, which is good, but it only seems weird for no good reason.

    Okay, it’s weird. But the heart of the movie seems to be an actor going from scene to scene and acting. There’s a part of the movie where it’s intimated that he is acting without cameras, because the cameras are now so small that nobody can see them. But acting a role nonetheless. That makes the weirdness fall away, and now the only thing the audience is left with is a series of performances. They were good, re: Denis Lavant, but who cares?

    And that’s when the movie failed me. I never sensed that there was a coherent whole at work. Sure, some scenes were great, but that’s all they were. Scenes. The end with the talking cars was salt on the wound to me. Really? That was it?

    I don’t know, there’s stuff to like. As I said, Denis Lavant is great, and if you’re prurient, the latex contortionist is something to see. But there’s no there there.

  2. While I was impressed in many ways by this film, and it’s certainly never boring, I agree with the criticisms of G. Smalley and Rob Steele. It’s a superior Weird Movie, but not quite a classic, because the emptiness at its heart is a little too deep for the viewer ever to really engage with anyone in the film. Characters are mutilated or even killed, but there don’t seem to be any consequences that last more than a minute or two. When somebody the main character apparently cares about apparently dies, he seems to be upset, but since by that stage we know that his own death is reversible, and we also know that the other person is in the same profession, why does it matter if they die? They’ll just get up again in a moment. And even if they don’t, so much effort has gone into stressing that these people aren’t real that we just don’t care.

    What’s more, the most conventionally touching scene begins with us knowing that one of the participants is acting, and ends with the revelation that both of them were, and they both knew it all along! It’s round about that point that you stop caring in the slightest what happens to anybody, because even if you’re not told whether or not they’re really who they say they are, the fourth wall has been so completely demolished that you’re constantly aware that everybody’s only acting, which devalues their performances.

    It’s often said of mainstream movies that if you start wondering how the special effects were achieved, you’ve lost interest in the actual movie, so it’s not doing its job. I had a very similar feeling here – Denis Lavant’s skill in making himself up is undeniably impressive, but I increasingly found myself admiring his abilities in that area at times when I should have been simply watching the film.

    You know what would be great? Denis Lavant as Fantômas, disguising himself as numerous people for an actual reason, not simply because he can. Unfortunately “Holy Motors” has so little plot, and what there is is so purposely self-referential and confusing, that the movie in many ways comes across as a show-reel for the rest of Denis Lavant’s career. On the basis of which I think he’ll get a lot of work – if he was American he’d already be signed up for a blockbuster about a character who is a master of disguise (witness the woefulness that was “The Saint”, and Val Kilmer’s multiple failed attempts to look like anyone other than Val Kilmer wearing a fright wig and joke-shop teeth). Or possibly a remake of “Dr. Strangelove” in which, unlike Peter Sellers, he didn’t fake a leg injury to avoid having to play Slim Pickens’ character in addition to the three he was already saddled with. Or even a biopic of Lon Chaney?

    By the way, am I going too far in spotting deliberate similarities with “Eraserhead”? Both films have seemingly random titles justified at the end in a ridiculously literal way. And they both open with a seemingly unrelated prologue in which a character who doesn’t appear in the rest of the film, is somehow outside the environment in which it occurs, and is probably God (an excellent description of the director, as far as the characters in a movie are concerned!), symbolically sets things in motion. Just a thought…

  3. Whoever generated the remark that this was a fantastic net site really requires to very own their brain appeared at.

  4. Like Denis Lavant’s member, this popped up (unpixellated) on free to view terrestrial TV here in the UK the other day. We also had “mother!” recently, and out of the two, I enjoyed this one the most (I didn’t not enjoy the Aronofsky, but the symbolism seemed to have been applied with a heavier hand. I prefer a bit of ambiguity, myself). Anyway, as always, the essays on this site helped to enrich the viewing experience, so thank you. I now calculate that I’ve seen 23% of the Canonically Weird List, which is pitiful. Must try harder in 2020!

  5. How is this film NOT a “must see” / “weirdest”??? I mean, the damn thing moved me to tears twice whilst thoroughly entrenched in the midst of its perplexity—how often does the utter shock and awe of a Jodorowsky film still manage torpedoes straight to the heart? And the very first thing your review states (quite accurately, of course) is that it’s an “unqualified masterpiece.” At LEAST a “must see”…

  6. Hold on—“emptiness at its heart”??? This movie is very simply about being alive! We move around in these vessels, we occupy various roles according to our levels of engagement, we’re acutely aware of it all without question—as are the very vessels that facilitate these bloody vessels (limousines, ha!)—and we’ve NO choice but to live with it!…or follow Kylie Minogue into the void. This thing is trying to describe life itself. I very sincerely think that the plain fact is abundantly clear, maybe even overwrought (maybe even a criticism?)…

  7. Just ran across this on ShoutFactory. I agree with the critic who said this is what he comes to Cannes for. It’s a beautiful mystery. It’s an artist playing with art and showing us it hasn’t all been done yet. Highly recommended!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *