Holy Motors

Holy Motors ★★★★★

Film #24 of Cinebro's "I Take Back All the Mean Things I Said, This is Totally Worth It" Challenge

A friend of mine has a theory. He feels that he's seen a new genre emerge in recent years that is starting to pop up all over world cinema: the Movie About Everything. He says that filmmakers have become so creatively adventurous that it's not enough to make a movie about something. Oh no, that would be too easy. Instead, they're trying to encompass the entire sphere of human existence into a single film. He points to "Tree of Life" and "Synecdoche, NY" as recent examples. "Cloud Atlas" too (which I haven't seen yet, but I'll take his word for it). And I think I agree with him, to a certain extent. Though filmmakers have been treading similar ground for decades (Antonioni, Bresson, Resnais, Ozu, the list goes on and on), I must admit that none of these cinematic forebears could approach the scope of their modern descendants. I think that the aesthetic and thematic acumen of current filmmakers keeps getting ratcheted up and up until their movies are so huge and momentous and filled to the brim with ideas that they really do feel like they're about, well, everything.

Which brings us to Leos Carax's "Holy Motors," one of the strangest and most ambitious films in recent memory. Is this a movie about the death of celluloid and the brave new world of digital film photography? Or is it about man's ever-expanding isolation in the information age, where communities based on families and physical locations are slowly eroding? Or maybe it's a Paris-as-Purgatory religious parable? Or is it about the folly of trying to narrowly define the essence of the soul when we are all large and contain multitudes? The answer to all of these questions appears to be yes.

A man (Leos Carax) wakes up in a hotel room. He unlocks a secret passage which opens up a packed theater staring rapturously at a silent film. Quick cut to the exterior of a Parisian mansion, where a dapper businessman (longtime Carax collaborator Denis Lavant) enters a white limousine. He is told by his driver (Edith Scob of "Eyes Without a Face" fame) that he will have nine appointments today.

In these first few moments, I was already hooked. Shades of the opening to Bergman's "Persona." A little Lynchian weirdness. Fantastic set design and attention to detail. Denis Lavant's chameleonic presence. And then the film proceeded to blow the doors off of any expectations that I might have had.

In short time, we see Lavant exit the limousine dressed as a bag lady, panhandling on what appears to be Carax's beloved Pont Neuf. No explanation is given to this activity, and after a short period he re-enters the limo and moves on to his next assignment. What. The. Fuck.

And then the film enters a rhythm where Lavant assumes the personalities of a variety of different characters, from a soulful hitman to a literal troll. We watch as he completes each activity and then somberly moves on to the next. Each of these sections cheerfully nutty, ambiguous, and open to virtually any interpretation. For a long time I thought that I was watching a movie about the difficulties that Carax had in securing financing after his last film "Pola X" was a flop, and I'm still not convinced that I am wrong.

I had been watching some of Carax's older movies in anticipation of this film, and I made note of the wild tonal shifts that characterize his work. But I still wasn't prepared for the schizophrenia of "Holy Motors." We see Eva Mendes sing lullabies in a burqa, which leads to a father shaming his shy daughter, which leads to Kylie Minogue belting a torch song in an abandoned department store, which leads to... We watch as the film veers from slapstick to melodrama to thriller and back again, as Lavant's weariness at his task becomes ever magnified. Oh, and we're treated to the most judicious use of a troupe of accordion players in cinematic history, so that has to count for something.

I hope that I'm capturing the wild imagination that's on display here. I asked in my review of "The Lovers on the Bridge" if Leos Carax is a mad genius. Now I know that he is. This film has no business working as well as it does, but Carax had a vision and followed it through to perfection. This is a madcap, engaging, funny, bizarre, melancholy leviathan of a movie. So yes, it's a movie about everything, and I loved it. LOVED it.

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