Holy Motors arrives in local theaters on a wave of effusive praise. After its premiere at the Cannes film festival, the notoriously picky audience whooped and cheered. When more critics saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, many clamored to Twitter, proclaiming it’s a mind-blowing masterpiece and one of the year’s best films. Some said it will save the cinema. I wouldn’t go that far – it is simply too batshit insane for that – although I understand what they mean. Director Leos Carax has made a movie about our need for authentic experience, and he certainly delivers on that level. But anyone who sees Holy Motors should have an open mind or be properly warned.
Oscar (Denis Lavant) has a busy day. A white limousine picks him up from his austere home, and his driver tells him he has nine appointments. For his first appointment, Oscar wears a motion capture suit and records a CGI action sequence. A woman then comes enters the dark room, and she records a creepily erotic love scene with him. Carax offers no context: we are never told for whom Oscar is working, and to what end his appointments serve. They only get weirder. Using his time in the limo to change make-up, Oscar transforms himself into a grotesque troll, one who wanders through Père Lachaise until he bites off a photographer’s middle fingers and kidnaps Eva Mendes. In his underground lair, he has unsavory plans for her. When Kylie Minogue pops up later for a heartfelt ballad, it’s hardly a surprise.
The first third is difficult to get through. Carax gives the audience no anchor; Oscar is in practically every scene, but at first his behavior makes little sense. Instead of enjoying the movie, I just kept asking myself questions: What are on those dossiers? What is Oscar trying to accomplish? Why does his erection look so strange? The only way to appreciate the movie is to abandon the questions entirely. Only then do the vignettes make more sense: each appointment has the shape of another movie, one that Carax mimics and skewers. The episodic structure undermines the immediate action: it’s hard to accept Oscar as a stern father to a teenage girl when he’ll later switch gears and become a masked psychopath. Then again, the teenage girl takes him seriously even if we do not. Maybe Oscar has a mark for each appointment, and his goal to shake them out of monotony.
It impossible to assign Holy Motors a genre since it borrows from every one imaginable. There are horror scenes, two musical numbers, and a consistent strain of black comedy. The Mendes and Minogue cameos add a dash of Hollywood appeal, and exacerbate Oscar’s innate weirdness. It is difficult to fathom how Lavant accomplishes such a complex, physical performance. He makes it look easy when he contorts his body and his face, as if the transformations are his second nature. The novelty of the performance can only take us so far, so Carax also forces us to think. By occupying the space between the screen and our minds, Holy Motors shows how the relationship between them is much more malleable than we expect. If Oscar literally gets his instructions from the filmmaker Leos Carrax, then the audience participates in the appointments, too.