The 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival wrapped up in Auckland over the weekend in superb style, officially closing on Saturday evening with Leos Carax’s delirious comeback film Holy Motors. The eccentric French filmmaker has returned in great form with what is easily the most bold, exhilarating, maddening and thought-provoking film of the year — if not the best — although the divisive and experimental material certainly doesn’t cater to all tastes. Read below for my review of Holy Motors, and check back soon for my highlights of this year’s festival.
Any attempt to describe the dream-like plot of Holy Motors is about as futile as trying to explain the events of a film by David Lynch (whose surreal works are what this film is most often compared to), but here goes: the bizarre, kaleidoscopic narrative follows 24 hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a mysterious figure who is chauffeured around the eerie, beautiful streets of Paris in a white stretch limousine by his attentive driver Celine (Edith Scob), with nine “appointments” to keep. With a full dressing room and range of costumes at his disposal inside the limo, Oscar is at turns: a motion capture actor performing an erotic scene with a contortionist actress, which is then stunningly and grotesquely animated; a crazed, flower-munching leprechaun who kidnaps a seductive fashion model (Eva Mendes) and takes her to his underground lair; an assassin whose target is his doppelgänger; a weary father who reprimands his teenager daughter for being unsociable; an old man on his death-bed exchanging confidences with his attractive, tearful great-niece (Elise Lhomeau); and more. Oscar seems to be an actor of sorts, performing perhaps for hidden cameras and spectators, pursuing “the beauty of the act”. Each appointment comes with a change of costume, visual style and tone, and belongs to a different genre, yet there is a remarkable fluidity between them.
Holy Motors marks Carax’s first feature in 13 years — his last was the audacious literary adaptation Pola X (1999), which also arrived after a lengthy hiatus following the masterful The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) — and the director has returned energised, seemingly with the intent to cram a decade’s worth of ideas and frustrations into one film. The prologue features Carax himself, who awakens in a Lynchian dreamscape and opens a secret door overlooking an auditorium. An impassive audience watches flickering images from the earliest days of cinema, signaling that this film is fixated with the history of cinema and a commentary on the current state of filmmaking. Along the way, Carax nods to the likes of King Vidor’s 1928 silent movie The Crowd, Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographed athletes, Oshima Nagisa’s Max Mon Amour, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, as well as his own films — the feral leprechaun is a reprisal of Lavant’s Monsieur Merde from Carax’s segment of the 2008 omnibus Tokyo! — and while this is obviously a blast for cinephiles, the film’s appeal is not strictly limited to them.
For anyone worried that a heady film obsessed with filmmaking might be overly dry or dull, fear not, as Holy Motors is one of the most frequently hilarious films in recent memory. Besides some humourously unexpected simians and talking machines, the film also features a stunning and joyous musical interlude in which a full band led by Lavant on piano accordion cover R.L. Burnside’s ‘Let My Baby Ride’. Another scene has Carax mocking our digitally-obsessed culture, with every tombstone in a cemetery engraved with the name of a website (the film was shot on digital for budgetary reasons, despite the director’s disdain for the technology: “they are imposing themselves or being imposed on us”).
Elsewhere, the film is genuinely moving in the scenes Lavant shares with Elise Lhomeau and Edith Scob, and deeply mysterious and noirish in a scene he shares with an authority figure played by Michel Piccoli. If there is one segment which perhaps doesn’t quite work as well as the others, it is Kylie Minogue’s appearance as a Jean Seberg-styled former lover who bursts into a melancholy original song titled ‘Who Were We?’ (supported by the Berlin Music Ensemble). While she can sing just fine, her performance comes off as a little flat and the divergent segment drags more than anything else in the film, but an argument could be made for its inclusion for the sake of scope and genre representation.
Holy Motors is unavoidably episodic and therefore uneven in nature, and limited in its appeal due to its preposterous narrative which some will no doubt find exasperating. However, I found this bizarre odyssey to be the most challenging, imaginative, rewarding and near-genius piece of cinema I have seen in 2012, and it’s difficult to fathom how the Cannes jury failed to bestow a single award on such a daring and original piece of work. The chameleonic Lavant gives the performance(s) of his career in the eleven(!) roles he plays here, and he is absolutely sensational. The visuals Carax and cinematographer Caroline Champetier achieve are beautiful and virtuoso throughout, with each genre diversion impeccably realised. Carax offers some intriguing thoughts on the nature of art — whether it be acting or filmmaking — as well as on the digital revolution engulfing our culture, and his ambiguous, surreal style evokes the likes of Lynch, Gaspar Noé and David Cronenberg at their best. While I would need to see the film a second time to proclaim with any certainty that it is the best of the year, suffice it to say that Holy Motors is currently my frontrunner for that title, and I can’t wait to experience it again in all its bizarre and sublime glory.
For further information on the New Zealand International Film Festival, head to their website.
Watch the trailer for Holy Motors below.