If you are one to judge a movie by the duration of time spent thinking about it afterwards, I promise that the contemplation period after Holy Motors will outrun that of any other movie you’ve seen recently. You will find yourself agonizing over it, in the best way possible. Much of the film’s mystery arises from wondering what drives the protagonist, Monsieur Oscar, to don 11 different roles in a day-long limousine ride through Paris.
His first appearance as a well-off bourgeois statesman who dresses up as a gypsy to panhandle on the Pont Neuf resembles an act of empathetic voyeurism; his subsequent transformations into a performance capture artist for a video game then an accordionist reveal a more fetishistic intent. Beyond that, Oscar plays an overbearing father who interrogates his daughter on her social life, an assassin who kills his doppelganger and a leprechaun-looking bum who kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) to dress her in a burka. Each new episode emphasizes director Leo Carax’s immense artistic variety, who is capable of generating horror, sympathy and social commentary all at once, but does not cross from stimulating the audience to exhausting them.
Through Monsieur Oscar’s multiple roles, Carax shows himself to be an expert in multiple genres and a spokesman for the vast potential of film. Holy Motors seems to be Carax’s attempt to defend film in an era of increasing technology and virtual outlets. He likens the art form to Oscar’s limousine ride: Through film, an audience can live the lives of foreign, exciting characters and thereby “act” on desires repressed by our tame, everyday lives.
Holy Motors suggests in its rare but powerful spoken lines that film’s ability to excite us and let us lead double lives is being threatened. In a scene when Oscar runs through Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, a tombstone reads “Visit my website” — the Internet and social media outlets create a virtual lifespan that may outlive us and threaten our appreciation of art. At one point, a sinister movie producer-type randomly appears in Oscar’s limousine and tells Oscar, “You’ve looked a bit tired recently. Some don’t believe in what they’re watching anymore.” Oscar says he “misses the cameras. Now they are smaller than our heads,” to which the old man asks, “Isn’t this nostalgia a bit sentimental?” Through the dialogue, Carax comments on the supposed degeneration of film. But when Oscar is asked “What makes you carry on, Oscar?” Carax poses his solution: Oscar replies, “The beauty of the act.”
If film will survive incoming technologies because of its beauty, Holy Motors is proof. Caroline Champetier’s widescreen cinematography beautifully saturates the Paris landscape and provides visual excitement throughout the slower portions of the story. The cast is studded with attractive performances as well: Eva Mendes as a model passively kidnapped by her erect (literally) beast Oscar, Kylie Minogue as an old flame of Oscar’s singing “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” in a portion of the film told through music.
The critics, too, see Holy Motors as a harbinger of a new era in cinema. The Los Angeles Film Critics awarded it the Best Foreign Language film award and the movie has broken into the esteemed 90th percentile on Rotten Tomatoes. I only regret that Oscar voters disagreed when they chose to omit the film from their Best Foreign Language Film category. They have left the film behind, but I can’t say that I have.
Holy Motors is the best film I saw this year and has re-energized my passion for contemporary cinema. I predict that you will hear a lot about Leo Carax in coming years. Emanuel Levy has named him the new “enfant terrible” of cinema and clearly Carax is driving film forward. If Carax has a new future for cinema in mind, I cannot wait for it.