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Holy Motors - review

Leos Carax’s comeback film is wild and wonderful.

Holy Motors (18)
dir: Leos Carax

It is 13 years since Leos Carax’s Pola X, an unfairly maligned adaptation of Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. This means that an entire generation currently has no idea what one of Carax’s films might entail. Where exactly are young people going nowadays for a one-stop shop of pretentiousness, flagrant romanticism and visual chutzpah?

It’s possible that Carax angered the gods of auteur theory by departing in Pola X from the template adhered to in his previous films (Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf). Each of those starred Denis Lavant, an acrobatic, pixie-like actor with a face as knobbly as ginger root, as a series of love-struck young men named Alex, some of whom could be found going gaga over Juliette Binoche (as Carax himself did). The director’s nom de cinéma is an anagram of Alex Oscar, and in Carax’s new film, Holy Motors, Lavant returns as a character named Mr Oscar, whose adventures intersect with cinema at every turn. The picture is the Rolls Royce of self-reflexiveness. There’s even a prologue starring the director himself as a man escaping from a neon-lit room by extending a metallic finger and… well, let’s just say the Hitchcockian walk-on isn’t his style.

The film follows a working day in the life of Mr Oscar, a well-dressed, middle-aged man who is ferried around Paris on business in a white stretch limo. For his first appointment, he clambers from the vehicle disguised as a hobbling beggar woman, his spine bent dramatically at a right angle. His next stop is at a motioncapture studio, where he slips into a bodysuit studded with neon pustules to run on a treadmill. As a bright screen flickers behind him, the visual effect is of an exercise regime conducted inside a zoetrope. From there, he steps into an assortment of roles, from the extreme (deadly assassin) to the mundane (worried father). If Mr Benn had trained under Lee Strasberg, the result might have been something like this.

In the picture’s parallel world, acting still involves the reading of scripts (or, in this case, dossiers) and recourse to prosthetic noses and fake scars. (Not for nothing does Edith Scob make an appearance, bringing along the eerily nullifying mask she wore in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face.) But the division between performance and reality is intentionally unclear. Some of Mr Oscar’s acting is conducted in public spaces, as though film-making has conformed to the model established by Borat. One sequence, in which he liaises with an old flame, Jean (Kylie Minogue), begins intimately before blossoming into a lush musical number as Jean steps over broken mannequins and poses the not-impertinent question: “Who were we/ When we were/Who we were/Back then?”

In another episode, Mr Oscar swipes the statuesque Eva Mendes from a photo shoot, carrying her to his lair like a teeny-weeny King Kong kidnapping an Empire State Building-sized Fay Wray. It’s worth pointing out that Mendes doesn’t seem unduly perturbed, even once Mr Oscar fashions her gown into a burqa and starts eating her hair. When you’ve worked with Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage, as she has, perhaps there isn’t much else that can faze you.

Carax’s films have always occupied a noman’s land of genre, so it’s not untypical that he should take a technique associated with comedy – one actor playing multiple parts, such as Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets – and set it within a fantasy world where characterization is as equivocal as tone and narrative. Late in the day, for example, it turns out that Mr Oscar can interact with and even kill versions of himself; murder assumes the functional ease of overwriting defunct computer files. The downside is that scenes can slip the moorings of plot and context, frustrating an audience’s need for cause and effect.

The central enigma of Holy Motors rests on where life ends and performance begins, or whether the distinction is irrelevant. It’s hardly an original enquiry – everything from A Star is Born to Synecdoche, New York has pursued it – but the film evokes vividly a world in which the physical and emotional centre of the self is up for grabs. Even the snatched moments in between Mr Oscar’s roles may be roles in themselves. When he exchanges pleasantries with an actress who has just finished playing his great-niece in a deathbed scene (Mr Oscar’s Oscar moment), there is no governing impression of reality, only the sense of another layer of make-believe.

As wild and wayward as Carax’s vision might appear – the film incorporates talking cars, a chimpanzee family and an entr’acte performed by marching accordionists – it touches recognisable human experience at enough points to sustain an emotional connection. It’s not farfetched to see Holy Motors as a lament for the human race, barricaded behind its masks and egos, connecting only briefly and accidentally. In that world, the most daunting task is the one which Mr Oscar sentences his daughter when he catches her lying: “Your punishment is to be you,” he tells her. “You have to live with yourself.” Now that’s weird.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special