French director Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, his first feature in over a decade, manages to be accessible and engaging while proudly being the kind of film that mocks the notion of accessibility and the audience’s need to engage. It does not, it must be made clear, mock the audience itself. The influences of past French cinema on Carax and Holy Motors are almost all good ones, like the stately clarity of Alain Resnais’ surrealism, Jean-Luc Godard’s endless pop erudition and sense of humor, and the will to be weird of countless Gallic auteurs.
On one level, Holy Motors—after a brief, visually gorgeous prologue where the director himself (the guy in the hotel room is him) appears onscreen to raise the baton, in a way, on the symphony that’s about to play—is the episodic tale of a mysterious actor, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) being driven to various “appointments” in a white stretch limo (much in the manner of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis). The limo is both conveyance and fully appointed makeup studio and costume storage, with which M. Oscar completely alters his appearance according to the specifications of the given appointment. On a secondary level, Holy Motors is about film genres, as each appointment and M. Oscar’s guise therefore is in a different genre, from science fiction to fantasy to naturalism to thriller to musical to comedy, each rendered in a discrete manner while still having the unifier of M. Oscar. On a third level, it’s about the way human beings (whose bodies are the titular “holy motors,” in one reading) are actors playing a part and the way we follow the script, sometimes at the cost of our own lives. And, on a less serious but no less essential level, it’s about how cool white stretch limos (the titular “holy motors” in another reading) are, and that the age in which they were necessary or even feasible is soon passing.
That may seem like a lot to process but a) it’s a French movie, you get what you sign up for, and b) Carax is a director of sufficient skill that at no point is the audience given too much to process, and what there is is never too obscure. Its structure is such that if one of M. Oscar’s “appointments” isn’t quite as compelling as one of the others, it’s over soon enough and we’re on to the next. All of them eventually pay off, in terms of either purpose or even strictly entertainment value. The “appointment” that most closely resembles a conventional narrative is a gleefully vulgar riff on Beauty and the Beast in which M. Oscar, in the guise of the hideously deformed, bestial, appropriately-named Monsieur Merde, encounters a fashion model (Eva Mendes, posing with a quiver of arrows because it’s not 2012 in the movies without someone having a quiver of arrows) whom he abducts and absconds to the underworld, i.e. the sewer, where their relationship takes an unexpected turn that is better seen than described.
The reversal that takes place in that sequence is a running theme throughout M. Oscar’s various “appointments,” nearly all of which stand audience expectations on their head either in the service of illuminating some truth about humanity, or merely just to entertain. If, indeed, those are mutually exclusive ends, which they may not be. There’s one sequence in Holy Motors that really seems to be there only because it’s fun, suitably enough labeled “Entr’acte” (intermission), featuring Lavant and an army of musicians playing a cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” on multiple accordions backed with a rhythm section while marching around a cathedral. It, put simply, rules. The exuberance of this sequence is timed perfectly to give the movie momentum to get through its second half, which itself builds to another climactic musical sequence, this one featuring Kylie Minogue in a beautiful, sad performance as another limousine-riding actor, serenading M. Oscar with the mournfully lovely—and thematically unifying—original song “Who Were We?” The ensuing denouement, in contrast to the bleakness of that sequence, is extremely funny, featuring one hilarious surprise reveal that will be a particular delight to fans of classic SF based on French novels.
While undoubtedly more of a feast for film Francophiles, Holy Motors is a rewarding picture for just about anyone. Funny, lively, weird, gross, exhilarating, sad, and even (amazingly enough, considering how vulgar it can get) cute at times, it is an immensely fun movie to think about, and one that’ll stay with you, vividly, for a good long while.