Holy Motors

Holy Motors ★★★★★

"I fake it so real I am beyond fake." - Hole, 'Doll Parts'

Since it came out of nowhere to knock the world on its arse at the 2012 Cannes film festival, a consensus has emerged around Leos Carax's deranged epic. The consensus is that it's about the dissolution of identity - and objects, and indeed cinema - in the software age. M. Oscar (a staggering, once-in-a-lifetime performance by Denis Lavant) travels from life to life, often meeting family members of his creations, none of whom ever realise that their beloved relative is an impostor. He can switch his whole identity as easily as we adjust our Facebook statuses. Even death is dissolved into the data-moshing night; Oscar dies either twice or four times, depending on your interpretation of certain scenes, and in the film's most celebrated gag tombstones offer URLs for information about the deceased rather than more conventional inscriptions.

I come not to bury this consensus, but to doodle around the edges. It is, certainly, true - the last scene more or less spells it out, and given that Carax had to reluctantly shoot Holy Motors on DV for budgetary reasons it's fair to say this issue of physicality versus the digital space was on his mind. In one of the film's most visually spectacular scenes Oscar mimes sex with a contortionist while they're both covered in motion capture balls, and it's remarkable how the copulating CGI dragons they're turned into are so much less fantastical than the movements their real bodies make.

But to say there's one skeleton key that unlocks everything in this movie is to diminish it. Some of it is just gleeful silliness. Certainly after watching Denis Villeneuve indulge himself in lazy film-school surrealism it's a pleasure to watch the work of a director marinated in surrealism and absurdity as a way of seeing the world. Carax and Lavant remember that the surrealists were obsessed with jokes, as was Freud, and a light touch is vital for making absurdism work. Sometimes Carax plays the scenes more or less straight, but with one vital ingredient that renders them ridiculous - a parent giving the exact opposite advice to what you'd expect, or a character being replaced with a chimpanzee.

This reminds us that absurdity can be used as a method of social criticism, of defamiliarising the everyday so we can see how deranged it truly is. This, too, is an element of Holy Motors. Carax re-purposes a symbol of wealth and consumption - the limousine - to serve Oscar and his driver Céline (an impish Édith Scob, still elegant and ravishing over fifty years after Eyes Without a Face). The idea of their work, which never fully comes into focus, seems to be something like this: modern society is now so complex that all of its vital duties - family counselling, assassinations, movie effects, the inculation of anxieties in teenage girls - has to be carried out by factotums. These people's identities are driven by their essential duties, which is to say that they have no identities, which is to say that they're insane and we made them this way.

But Oscar and Céline seem to think their time is up. They will be replaced by - what? Algorithms, perhaps. There is an end-of-history terror not too far away from Holy Motors which does, of course, feed into its technophobia. But there's also something else. It ends with a dedication to Yekaterina Golubeva, Carax's late partner and leading lady in his previous film Pola X. Received at the time like a cup of lukewarm sick, Pola X wrote its own epitaph; it was an adaptation of Pierre, or the Ambiguities, Hermann Melville's legendarily unsuccessful follow-up to Moby-Dick (itself a flop on release). Seeing the undeserved kickings that greeted Pola X, Carax must have felt that history was repeating, which is to say, not progressing.

As ever with Carax there is a complex web of personal, literary and artistic referencing throughout Holy Motors - how apt that Céline takes Oscar on a journey to the end of the night! But it's odd that - as far as I've seen - no-one has analysed Holy Motors from a Melvillean perspective. Melville followed Pierre with The Confidence-Man, a strange metaphysical comedy about a traveller (on boat, rather than a limo) who shifts his identity in order to meet the needs of everyone he meets. Carax must, at least, have been aware of this - you don't adapt Pierre without having a fairly good knowledge of Melville - and it may be that, in trying to write his cinematic epitaph, he was drawn towards Melville's final novel.

Let's prove him wrong. Let's all of us send him a tenner to make another film. Because, as nice as it can be to go out on a high, cinema cannot live without someone who can touch the heights of pleasure, invention, melancholy, wit and wildness found in Holy Motors.

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