“Weird… weird.. weird! He’s so weird!”–delighted fashion photographer at his first glimpse of Merde
DIRECTED BY: Leos Carax
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.
- 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.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…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)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
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.)