Holy Motors

Holy Motors ★★★★

“We never arrive intellectually. But emotionally we arrive constantly.” –Wallace Stevens, Notebooks

Holy Motors is more poignant and death-haunted than I was expecting, though still borne along by a kind of joyful buoyancy stemming from the inventive absurdity of its vignette structure. It is a swan song for cinema that uses the inherent self-reflexivity of such a project to playfully slip the noose, as it were, into new possibilities. Yet what survives the constant reinventions, the spirit of fresh possibility waiting around every bend of the over-stretched limo, is a troubling weariness which soaks through Denis Lavant’s ever-changing character into the surrounding world of the film. Much of the strangely compelling nature of this loose, oddball opera is derived precisely from this push-and-pull between possibility and the total exhaustion thereof, between taking fresh license from an uncertain new artistic epoch and losing all sense of meaning in the collapse of conventions. In the last century, literature survived what Barthes termed ‘the death of the author.’ Holy Motors seems to challenge us with a new question: can cinema survive the (figurative) death of the audience?

But, attempted lofty readings aside (and there are plenty more of those possible beyond what I have toyed with), there is a surprisingly satisfying (though still unconventional) emotional engagement which inheres throughout. This is a film which speaks the life of the human being in two hours, and does so with startling specificity (or specificities) that nevertheless manages to be abstract due to the transience of premise and personality, beyond which is anchored the recurring hint of a single melancholic persona; this is human life without a steady persona, bereft of a master meaning; the life of the actor acting for no disclosed, purposeful reason; the changes of art unmoored from the medium and made a figure of the fragmented condition of modern existence. Each vignette works like a lyric poem, or a portrait, implying a world and a sense of narrative into existence around the margins of what is happening, and then banishing it into thin air, mercilessly as an assassin banishes a life, to shed what has been and take on something new. Each segment has an inner logic that is quickly established, and tonal shifts occasionally leave us wondering if our protagonist has exited the ‘frame’ of his mysterious work and stepped into his ‘authentic’ self. This film is personal and remote, grounded and surreal, academic and playful, poignant and silly, drab and aesthetically decadent. There’s more in it than at first appears. I cannot know exactly what I will think of it later, but for now I know only that I enjoyed it, and appreciate it in the way I tend to appreciate unapologetic attempts at the eccentric—which is, after all, our only home, no matter how fervently we demand reason.

Also, of course Denis Lavant is a production unto himself in this, but I loved Édith Scob's performance as the chauffeur. My road rage vocabulary has been enriched by the phrase, "Ectoplasm on wheels!"

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