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NYFF: "Holy Motors" Must-See Carax Madhouse

Michael C. here on the closing day of the 50th New York Film Festival.

Every once in a while a movie like Leos Carax’s Holy Motors comes along to remind everyone that movies are capable of anything. It is not just that the film eschews formula. It isn’t just a work of originality. Carax wants to pop your brain out and soak it in weapons grade hallucinogens then set you loose in a Paris where nightmare logic is matter-of-fact reality and you can’t get from scene to scene without stumbling through some new looking glass.

The plot is easily summarized. Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant, amazing) walks out of his expensive home in the morning, waves goodbye to his wife and kids and drives off in the back of stretch limo. In the limo is a theater troupe’s worth of costumes and props and a fully stocked make up mirror. Every time he steps out of the limo he is a different person, whose life he lives for an hour or two. 


No attempt is made to explain whom his employer is, why he does it, or any other practical aspects of his occupation. Oscar exits the limo, he is someone new. At one stop he is a bag lady, hunched over and praying for death. At a different stop he is a motion capture performer engaging in an erotic dance with another performer that has them twisting their Lycra suits around each other like they are on display in an art museum. In a virtuoso sequence of escalating shocks, Levant is a sewer-dwelling vagrant gremlin who runs amok through a Parisian neighborhood, eating the flowers off graves, knocking the cane out from under a blind man and generally terrorizing everyone who gets within fifty feet.

One could read Holy Motors as the art film equivalent of a cracked jazz funeral for the passing of the movies as we knew them. The film is steeped in memory and loss. There are frequent references to the passing of old technologies into obsolescence, and the screen is littered with references to film history, everything from footage taken at the birth of cinema to The Eyes Without a Face (Edith Scob, that film’s famously disfigured girl, plays Lavant’s driver).

But even with these clear themes it feels too soon to apply meaning to Motors. For now it doesn’t need to be anything more than taking cinema for a few laps around the track to show what it can do. About throwing everything you can think of at a film without restraint and miraculously making it all work. It’s about stopping everything dead for a few glorious minutes so Lavant can lead a parade of men playing accordions around a warehouse. 

And most of all it’s about moviegoers putting one foot in front of the other until they are sitting in a theater showing Holy Motors because Carax’s barking mad, intoxicating, oddly endearing film demands to be seen, if only to be believed. A- 

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Reader Comments (6)

It is interesting (i.e. not boring), that's for sure!

But it does seem a cinematic mishmash - a film for critics and academics.

A movie where the lead male sports a firm erection in the presence of goddess Eva Mendes (I was a little alarmed at this point given the age difference, but in fact Eva may be in her zenith of beauty at age 36 and leading man Denis Lavant looks like he's in his 60s but in fact is only 51), where the leading man goes home to his family of chimps, makes love to a woman in a lycra suit, where Kylie Minogue breaks into song then jumps off a building isn't exactly going for conformity. All a little silly if you ask me, if somewhat engrossing.

Also, the scene / character where Lavant runs about like an elf munching cemetey flowers and kicks away the cane of blind man causing him to fall seems a little over the top insensitive.

This was shown at the Toronto first of the season sneak preview to decidedly polarizing results and virtually no applause at the end. During the Q&A old doyenne said it was worst Sneak Peak screening she ever saw (didn't say how many seasons she's been partaking) to some agreement. Other's asked questions that suggested they weren't sure how to interpret many of the genres presented. Nor did the hosts either for that matter.

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Go see it - it's full of fantasy, imagination, funny as hell and even deeply thoughtful. With a masterful performance (x11) by the brilliant Denis Lavant and the gorgeous Edith Scop it's definitely worth checking out by those who get bored by the trite and ordinary storytelling of today's movie landscape.

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKobi

Okay, there are TWO "Glenn"s now? Seriously? Ugh. So I guess I gotta change my name because I do *not* sign on to the other Glenn's opinion of Holy Motors. I wrote about this film for The Film Experience a couple of months back and see it as perhaps the most essential film of the year. "for critics and academics" is a load of crap. This film is for anybody who has ever seen a movie of brave courage and wished there were more like it. It's a film for anybody who has seen the physical act of film being projected but who can also admit that a film like this couldn't have been made if made in traditional methods. It's a film that pulses with the history of cinema, but with a very keen and observational eye on the future. It's a film that has the heartbeat of a man who has been brought down and saw cinema as the way back (Carax's wife committed suicide in the time between "Pola X" and this). It's a film that subverts expectations of what a movie can do in 2012.

The further away from seeing it the more I am certain it is 2012's most vital piece of filmmaking.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn (the other one)

Dear Glenn (oy! a doppelganger of sorts, mirroring some elements of Holy Motors - Holy Cow!),

I know all of what you are saying given that the film programmer (Jesse Wente) and film critic (Liam Lacey of the Globe and Mail) alerted the seated cretins to the context of the film and filmmaker before and after we saw it. Now, I did say the film was somewhat engrossing so as for your "load of crap", how sweet! Oh, what's the point... that's why I posted under a different name and gender at a different site... to deflect the rampant online antics onto another persona entirely. See, I play act sometimes too, like M. Oscar / Le banquier / La mendiante / L'OS de Motion-Capture / M. Merde / Le père / L'accordéoniste / Le tueur / Le tué / Le mourant / L'homme au foyer

Keep in mind that the film audience that was underwhelmed was a group at 10am on a Sunday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. So... mostly older since the youngun's would still be in bed recovering from previous evening drug and booze in-take. Not ardent church goers either, so a higher possibility of an assortment of rationale thinkers. The sneak preview series is pricey, so older, articulate, cultured and artsy types. Not your dumbed-down big budget explosion loving audience.

Now, I suppose there is charm in seeing a green elf traipse through a cemetery grabbing and eating funereal floral bouquets, of going "home" to batten down the hatches with your chimp family, not to mention observing nine other "play acts" over the course of one day alone. Now as for the group of 24 stretch limos who decided to have a catty chat about their “employers”, how great was that!

In fact, I can certainly see the appeal of the film say to cyberbullies – imagine the fun of thinking yourself an evil leprechaun frightening Parisian innocents, then having an Eva Mendes like goddess collapse into your arms by your mere touch. Or, inflicting or receiving pain - the type of pain received when hit with a bullet or knife – then moving on to the next adventure. Good times I know. Now that I think of it, didn't love ALPS either for that matter, which this film reminded me of to some extent.

The one pleasant part of the day was seeing the Hollywood Hills situated Nobody Walks immediately following Holy Motors. Suffice to say, my electrolytes were brought back into balance post viewing. Then it was off to more sci-fi with X-MEN MASTER: GORDON SMITH, A new exhibition at the CIBC Canadian Film Gallery in the Lightbox. A most interesting day in all Gwendolyn my dear, and thanks for asking.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenndolyn

I cannot wait to see this. It is at the top of my "Most Anticipated" list. I don't care how far I have to drive, I will go to any lengths to see this movie. The reviews have all described something so singular that I just can't let it pass me by. I feel like if I do, I'll regret it, whether or not I actually end up liking it.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I found Holy Motors quite inventive and surprising but also rather demoralizing and bleak. A joyless lament about loss. Very surprised to read reviews elsewhere suggesting its some buoyant love letter to the cinema, when at best it is, as suggested here, a eulogy. Definitely one of the must see movies of the fall, though.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark
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