HOLY MOTORS (Three and a Half Stars)
France: Leos Carax, 2012
Holy Motors is a film of shadows and false faces, of traveling players. of humans and machines, of mirrors and makeup. Behind this bizarre picture — a quitessentially French, perverse and quite entertaining new film by longtime “bad boy” Leos Carax — lies a near century of movie surrealism: decades of deliberately fantastic, illogical and sometimes pathological/psychological film poems in which the cineaste (Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren or Carax or others) tries to dream on screen and to carry us into his/her maddest reveries.
Here the reveries are mad indeed. A man and a dog wake up in a strange room with a strange door that opens into a strange theatre showing a strange silent film. (Something by a Cocteau or a Bunuel?) The day is just beginning. For the rest of the film we will follow the (apparently) workday rounds of this man, a traveling player named M. Oscar (played by the defiantly sullen and unsmiling anti-star and Carax regular Denis Lavant), who is driven around in a limousine by a lady chauffeur named Celine — played by Edith Scob. who long ago, played the girl without a face in Georges Franju‘s 1960 horror-fantasy classic Eyes Without a Face. As Celine takes him around Paris in this journey to the end of the night (at the behest of a mysterious agency represented at one point by Bunuel cohort Michel Piccoli), M. Oscar appears at various places and plays various roles for a strange variety of people.
As far as I could glean or remember, M. Oscar impersonates, with Celine’s help — and thanks to a well-stocked supply of makeup and costumes in the back of the limo — a financier, an old beggar-woman, a motion capture lover/dancer in a black unitard, a wild sewer-dwelling hooligan named M. Merde, a dying uncle, a charismatic musician, a hired killer and his victim/double, and the lover of a heart-breaking chanteuse played and sung (to the hilt) by Kylie Minogue.
At the end of the day, night has fallen, the actor returns home (to an exceedingly weird household), and the cars gather together in their garage.
END OF SPOILER
The limousine-set Holy Motors, beautifully shot around Parisd by cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape, would make an interesting double feature with David Cronenberg’s New York-set limo movie, Cosmopolis, to which it is just as compelling, less preachy and more poetic. Lavant, who has to virtually carry the movie, gives a fantastic performance, and he’s memorably supported by Scob, Minogue, Piccoli. Eva Mendes (as a model kidnapped by M. Merde) and the others. Philistines will no doubt be incensed at Carax’z perverse ending and the rest of his film’s sheer oddness. Art-lovers (and lovers of French cinema, from the reveries of Melies and Feuillade to today) may be entranced. I liked it myself.
Perhaps that’s because, as a young UW cinephile in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s, I was treated to many surrealist films by Bunuel, Cocteau, and Deren and others, and later (in other cities and theatres), to similar films by David Lynch, Wojciech Has (the sublimely convoluted Saragossa Manuscript), Jan Svankmajer and others still. So Holy Motors didn’t seem all that strange to me. Watching it was like coming home to all those three-quarters-empty student or church auditoriums or multi-purpose rooms, with their slightly stale, much-breathed air and the whir and buzz of their beautiful Kodak Pageant projectors, in which films like Un Chien Andalou, The Blood of a Poet, Meshes of the Afternoon and their many imitators unreeled to our delighted confusion and to our confused delight.
Back then, we (or most of us), the residents in those magical, depopulated theaters, would have been exasperated at anyone who tried to attach too succinct a meaning to any of the surrealist or irrealist or anti-realist films we were watxhing, despite the fact that mimeographed and mostly impenetrable six-page-or-so notes often accompanied the programs, invariably introduced by a shaggy college student with a large vocabulary. Ah, youth and Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or!)
Carax is different, with right now an edge on most other cinematic mad dreamers. He manages to get producers to give him larger budgets. (Bunuel and Cocteau did later on in their careers as well, of course.) Not all that often, it‘s true. Holy Motors is Carax’s first feature since Pola X (1999), and that was his first since The Lovers on the Bridge (1991). When his films show up though, they’re usually admired by the cognoscenti. And should be. Holy Motors was liked by many critics at Cannes, and it won three major prizes (including the Gold Hugo for best feature) at the Chicago International Film Festival. It didn’t confuse me, especially, and it did delight me at times. It’s a crazy unbuttoned poem about art and acting and its practitioners and their relation to the world.
So God bless surrealism, buried meanings and movies that wander off beaten tracks. God damn the thought police. But listen, maybe I’m just getting older, and painfully nostalgic for the good old, bad young days of movie surrealism and cinematic mad dreams in black and white. And of dogs running free, Andalusian or otherwise. (In French, with English subtitles.)