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-