Now here’s a movie to divide audiences. As its 90% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes suggests, it’s had an awful lot of love from the critics (several critics groups have given it their Best Foreign Film prize), but when I was watching it I couldn’t help but think a lot of people will find it infuriating and obtuse. But then, it almost seems to be challenging the viewer to think that, constantly hinting at the threads that tie it together before flying off on another flight of fancy that seems designed to frustrate the audience’s expectation.
If nothing else it’s an astonishing showcase for actor Denis Lavant, who plays multiple characters of different ages and genders. He is Monsieur Oscar, whose name is the first suggestion that this is a movie that’s as much about the world of cinema as anything else. He is picked up early one morning in a white stretch limo by his loyal driver Celine (Edith Scob). They then spend the rest of the day driving to various ‘appointments’.
At each destination Oscar takes on a different persona/life, such as an ancient beggar-woman, a dying old man, a father driving his daughter home from a party and most memorably a hunch-backed, green-suited, id-creature who emerges from the sewer, kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes) and then cuddles up to her while sporting an erection.
It’s all very bizarre, constantly one-upping itself on the weird scale – and it’s weird in a David Lynch way, where it constantly feels like it almost makes sense, even though it doesn’t. It’s a movie of constant hints and suggestions, even if it’s sometimes far too obtuse for its own good.
Over the course of the movie we gradually realise that Monsieur Oscar is an actor and his ‘appointments’ are performance pieces. We also discover that he is a cinematic creation, so he can get stabbed in the neck and bleed out, but then a few minutes later he’s cleaned up and ready for his next appointment – even if all this art does begin to take a toll on him.
However nothing is ever fully explained. There’s a conversation about how over the years cameras have gotten so small you can no longer see them – so does that mean each appointment is being filmed for some unseen viewer? And if so, why do these viewers want endless short vignettes? Are all the other people we see also part of the performance? Is the reuniting of Oscar and an old acquaintance (played by Kylie Minogue) a break between appointments or just another act?
Holy Motors does a great job of getting your brain to engage with its peculiarities, even while it obstinately refuses to resolve itself. It’s the sort of movie where many people will claim to understand it and each explanation will be different and as much about the way the viewer looks at the world as it is about the movie itself.
It’s easy to understand its RottenTomatoes score as this is the sort of movie that almost seems designed to make film critics cream themselves. It’s a movie that constantly looks at (or at least hints towards) cinema itself, from Monsieur Oscar being someone who can only exists in film, to the presence of Edith Scob as Celine, who deliberately reminds us of her role 53 years ago in Eyes Without A Face.
Some of Holy Motors works better than others and it’s difficult to escape the sense that there’s an awful lot of pretentious posing going on, where it tries to find profundity purely by saying ‘Here’s an idea, now go off and think about it while we do something else’. It would be easy to dismiss the movie if it weren’t so inventive. Most of the film’s vignettes are intriguing, very watchable and sometimes funny, so that whether you’re trying to find sense in them or not, it keeps you watching and pulls you into its peculiar world.
I have to admit there were times when the movie drove me nuts, as it often seems too pleased with itself. Oddly, I actually liked the movie better after I watched the hour-long talk with director Leos Carax that’s included on the Blu-ray and discovered that he’s just the sort of pretentious tosspot you’d expect to make a film like this. He possesses that oddly French sort of affected disregard, where he only talks in short sentences that sound deep but often don’t actually mean all that much.
He seems to live in a sort of intellectual/artistic netherworld, where his thoughts and comments aren’t really in response to the actual world around him, they’re in response to other people’s thoughts and comments about the world. It’s a weirdly post-modern way of viewing things and helps give context to the movie, making you realise that part of its peculiarity is that you’re seeing something that is intellectually several steps further removed from reality than anything you’d normally watch.
So, for example, one of the themes in the movie it that everyone has to play different roles in life depending on the situation they’re in – husband, employee, parent, lover – and that each one is a kind of performance. However you’re not seeing a direct response to that idea, you’re seeing a response to everybody else’s response to it, stretching back to when Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.’
It’s certainly makes for an intriguing and visually striking movie, which is as poetic and involving as it is frustrating and oblique. Many will adore it, especially if you like arty movies that talk about cinema and demand you to think. However if you like your films simple and to have everything easily spelled out for you, this is not the movie for you.
Overall Verdict: A strange movie that is both exasperatingly pretentious and endlessly intriguing. It’s a bizarre movie with an astonishing performance from Denis Lavant. It may be a bit obtuse for its own good, but it’s certainly a tour de force.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac