Review: Holy Motors (2012)

Director: Leos Carax

*****

(This review was originally published on Ramp.ie)

Holy heck! It’s Holy Motors! The Cannes favourite must be holy, because it feels heaven-sent. Like a bolt from the blue, Leos Carax’s film arrives to inject a healthy dose of idiosyncrasy into your multiplex viewing options. After all, where else can you expect to see a leprechaun-derelict hybrid kidnap Eva Mendes from a cemetery? Or Kylie Minogue channelling Jean Seberg by speaking French with a healthy side order of malaise? It may seem an unlikely candidate for the title of best film of the year but, with just three months to go, Holy Motorsis the film to beat.

Acclaimed French actor Denis Lavant plays monsieur Oscar, but then monsieur Oscar goes on to play many more roles. Oscar is an actor brought from job to job in a stretch limo by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob). However, these are acting jobs in the broadest metaphysical sense. He plays a beggar woman, a thuggish hitman, a gangster, a dying man and a caring father, all across the course of a day. He’ll die in one scenario, only to resurrect himself to continue on to the next job, changing make-up and costume in the limo. Initially, you may be left feeling like the boy in the YouTube video on his way home from the dentist, asking ‘Is this real life?!’. Who is Oscar doing this for, and why? Is it for a paying client? For a higher deity (the limo company is called Holy Motors, after all)? Or for himself? The fun is in the ambiguity.

At one point, Oscar is asked why he does what he does, and he replies ‘For the beauty of the act’. There is a beauty to the dexterity of Lavant’s acts, and it may well go unrecognized. The decision by France to submit something perceived as safer than Holy Motors for Academy Award consideration shows how irreverent and different Holy Motors can be. In a wonderful parallel universe, monsieur Oscar would be chasing his namesake, such is Lavant’s dedication as he bares himself both literally and emotionally via his distinct mini-roles. Each is different from the next, and he pulls them all off with aplomb aplenty.

So, what is Leos Carax up to here? Holy Motors looks and sounds like esoteric arthouse, but this is not an oddity just for the sake of it. With each change of character for monsieur Oscar, Holy Motors jumps from genre to genre. After a round of odd tantric sex on a motion capture stage (Can we please give Lavant a role in Avatar 2?), Oscar becomes the cemetery-bothering leprechaun in a wonderfully surrealist segment. Dramas, musicals and gangsters all get their due, but it’s never flippant. Holy Motors is highly reverential. Scorsese and Godard get due nods, but then so do the more contemporary likes of Audiard and Kassovitz. Yet Holy Motors isn’t just enthusiastic about cinema; it’s a big bonkers slice of life in all its forms. People go to work, have sex, eat, die, resurrect. All shapes and sizes make both the world and Holy Motors spin on its lopsided axis. Carax’s clear and giddy enthusiasm is infectious, from odd beginning to glorious entr’acte (Big shout out to all the RL Burnside fans!) to delightful end.

For all its references, Holy Motors is utterly and bafflingly unique. As a celebration of the craft of the actor, it’s unparalleled. As an eccentric mind-bender, it’s a delight. As a sensory cinematic experience, it’s majestic. Carax has said he wants Holy Motors to capture the feeling of being alive. Holy Motors is alive and kicking, singing, dancing, shooting, loving and moving. Forget Cosmopolis; for prime limo-based storytelling, Holy Motors is the model of choice.

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