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Holy Motors
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by Jay Seaver

"Looks so far inward it almost comes out the other side."
3 stars

"Holy Motors" is the sort of film that will occasionally get its maker described as "drunk on cinema", just so utterly filled with passion for the medium and its possibilities as to be voluble and more capable of expressing emotion that mere rational thought. Of course, it's also the sort of state where a person stumbles around, throwing up on the people he passes and rambling on about things that just sound silly to the sober. At least he's got a designated driver.

That would be Céline (Edith Scob), who arrives early in the morning to pick up Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) in a limousine and drive him to a series of "appointments". Oscar is an actor of sorts, and the car his mobile dressing room where he removes his wigs, dons prosthetic makeup, and transforms himself into a new person for each stop, only occasionally allowing the audience to see the man behind the blank when he interacts with Céline or other actors between gigs.

The main problem with Holy Motors is, as can often be the case with ambitious and unusual works, also the thing that makes it interesting: An ambitious conceit that allows it to leap between genres and styles while commenting on the nature of cinema itself. Writer/director Leos Carax has a nifty idea, an actor quite capable of handling his chimera of a role and the crew to make it work on-screen, but for as much power as both the idea itself and the individual bits may have, they seldom connect, or even come close enough to have a spark jump between them. The film only rarely produces delight, and when its goal appears to be satiric, that falls flat, too.

Consider the third or fourth segment, where Lavant reprises the character of "Merde" from Carax's segment of Tokyo!. The segment suffers badly in comparison; its zaniness is undercut from the very start by the larger film's structure points out the artificiality of every one of the sub-films; this one is further compromised by lines before it that hint that Oscar is going to rush through this particular "assignment" and a photographer who delightedly asks to shoot Merde because "he's so weird!" The execution of the gags seldom seems as crisp as it was in Tokyo!, and even when it is, the set-up is designed to elicit a feeling of superiority, whether it's "ha-ha, this is the sort of absurdist slapstick that the common man doesn't get" or "ha-ha, it's pretentious and not very good but I see that the filmmaker is trying to make a point around it being pretentious and not very good, which I get!"

Granted, part of the problem with that segment is just that there's a superior analog to compare it to, but the other segments share the same sort of hollowness: Even when Lavant and collaborate on a scene that is undeniably well-done, there's always the reminders that it's not real and that the people involved will go and do something else right afterward. It's a constant repudiation of what pleasure the audience received from what they just saw and erasure of consequences, and the underlying idea, that making movies involves surrendering oneself completely to this imaginary world, is much more intellectual than emotional. The audience can see how Carax is playing, and talking about cinema while apparently showing this surreal other world, and that's fine and enjoyable; he's got plenty of thoughts on the subject. He teases the audience with a few nifty possibilities as the film goes along, and the avoidance of true resolution makes them even more fun to play with.

And the cast certainly gives this movie their all. Denis Lavant is plenty impressive, not just because he plays a number of roles, but because plays them all so well. It's not terribly long before it's clear that much of what is going on is just elaborate constructs, but Lavant/Oscar disappears into his roles so thoroughly and invests them with enough emotion that the audience can certainly feel something in the moment. Edith Scob is an almost ideal complement to him as Céline; she injects enough personality to make their interactions interesting but never overpowers Oscar's between-appointments blank state. The various actresses Lavant plays against in the appointments are all impressive, whether Eva Mendes's deadpan model, Kylie Minogue's former girlfriend, Jeanne Disson's daughter, or Elise Lhomeau's niece. Michel Piccoli makes a welcome appearance, too.

There's no denying that "Holy Motors" is a rich film; Carax packs quite a bit into its two hours. That richness isn't necessarily satisfying, though; much of the time, it's too obviously metaphorical despite having little interesting to say about anything but itself.

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originally posted: 11/12/12 02:38:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2012 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2012 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 48th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 48th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/03/15 brian Seaver is WAY over-thinking this. It's a mind-on-hold roller coaster ride, imperfect fun. 4 stars
3/19/13 Sia Sharif Such a great movie 5 stars
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  09-Nov-2012 (NR)
  DVD: 26-Feb-2013


  DVD: 26-Feb-2013

Directed by
  Leos Carax

Written by
  Leos Carax

  Denis Lavant
  Edith Scob
  Eva Mendes
  Kylie Minogue
  Michel Piccoli
  Jean-Francois Balmer

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