Holy Motors is brash, beguiling and surreal

Leos Carax’s new film Holy Motors (2012), now playing at the Hyland Cinema, is beguiling and makes you want to scream, “Where are you taking me?” at the screen by about the twenty-minute mark. Still by the time you walk out of the cinema, you feel that you have definitely taken a trip. There’s plenty of opportunity to be offended or even repulsed by events in the film, and for some the end result may just be boredom, but I was amused by its brashness and carried along by its peculiarity.

What we have for a plot, and it's one that never bothers with the confines of structure, offers Denis Lavant as the central character (referred to by various names but originally as M. Oscar) of a mythic actor or impersonator for hire. He finds himself inside the role of a person as he wakes up in the morning and then spends his day filling parts before returning to one last role at the end of a hard day to sleep.

He’s driven from ‘gig to gig’ in a white stretch limo by Celine - French actress Edith Scob of Les yeux sans visage (1960), which is referenced slyly in the film - the only person that seems to know he exists at first. The limo is a sleek white, and she’s impeccably statuesque giving all the impression of something supernatural or numinously powered. Over the course of the Oscar’s long day he becomes a beggar, a motion capture gymnast, a subterranean troll man, an absentee father, a dying father, a gangster and a lover to a doomed Kylie Minogue character in an epic musical number from atop a hotel in the shadow of Paris’ L’Ile de la Cite.

There’s a surrealist prologue of sorts that opens the film where a man unlocks a pathway into a cinema that transports him into the world of the film’s eventual narrative. I’m giving scant descriptions here because much of the film’s novelty is in its visual audacity, but regardless, much like how Buster Keaton jumped into the screen 89 years ago in Sherlock Jr. (1924)– by the way if you want something to watch tonight, try that - to be transported into a number of different worlds, that’s what Carax is trying to do.

The ultimate role of the film might be read as a passage through the rites of film storytelling and amount to little vignettes that never seem to quite add up to anything other than a grueling tour de force for its protagonist. In sum, there’s some kind of statement about the aimlessness of it all buried in here. Some have written that Holy Motors is Carax’s homage to the waning power of cinema, a medium that used to be able to transfix, but now is only a distraction. That’s not writ large on the surface of the events in the film, but in all its narrative distortion and visual variation, I think there’s something to that notion.

Sure it adds up to something very befuddling, but I was intrigued by it and couldn’t help but revel in something that is so gloriously without a care about taste or structure. The last few scenes in the movie are out and out goofy to the point where I do wonder if Carax was just throwing everything up against the wall whether or not it stuck. Hey, once in a while you want someone to do that in your art consumption, surely?

It’s not your typical Sunday afternoon romp, but for lovers of the cinema Holy Motors is a peculiar dose of what the medium can offer when it’s untethered from genre structure and plot constraints.  This probably isn’t for everyone, but for people who enjoy experimental cinema, particularly of the French tradition, I do recommend it highly. This is the art house curiosity of 2012.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Paul Hantiuk is a local film enthusiast and occasional freelance writer