Josh hooked us up this time around with a film that more or less defies easy description – or easy analysis, for that matter. Holy Motors is a French film directed by the rarely-working Leos Carax, and it was named #16 in a recent BBC list of the 100 greatest films of the 21st century. Now, I’d venture to say that it’s probably a bit early to make that list, but seeing as we’re about 16 years and change into the century it’s just about right on pace to hold on to a spot in the final list. I’ll let you know if I make it long enough to see if it earns that final cut. (But as intriguing as it is, I’m pretty sure that it would fall a good bit farther down my list if I tried to do the same thing.)
Holy Motors is less a story and more a series of vignettes that are tied together by a very odd conceit. In the morning (or perhaps afternoon, as much of the film takes place at night) as the film opens our protagonist Mr. Oscar is picked up in a stretch limousine by his chauffeur Céline for his daily work. It’s not immediately clear what his work is, but it turns out he’s somewhat of a quick-change artist and he starts acting in a series of pre-booked gigs, doing his changing from the overly-spacious (like a Doctor Who phone booth) back seat of the limo. His first gig is as a beggar woman. It is relatively uneventful.
From there he moves on to a gig as a motion capture artist, being directed by an off-screen voice, in which he gets thrown from a treadmill moving too fast for him and does some pretty kinky motion capture with an anonymous (presumably female) artist that’s turned into animated dragon porn. Sometimes I think the world has too much novelty in it for its own good.
Next, in one of the film’s most extended scenes he reprises the role of Monsieur Merde, a creepy lecherous leprechaun first introduced as Carax’s contribution to the 2008 compilation film Tokyo! Our leprechaun friend crashes a model’s photo shoot, bites the fingers off of an assistant, then takes the model down into the sewers where he does bizarre things like eat money and exhibit an erection for a prolonged period of time. These gigs that our quick-change artist has are quite inexplicable. It is implied that clients are hiring him, but their motivations are certainly obscure. At one point Mr. Oscar asks Céline if there is a gig in the forest today and is disappointed to find out there is not. He would like to have seen the forest again.
Next, he plays the role of a father picking up his teenage daughter from a party, only to severely scold her when he finds out that instead of having a good time and courting lots of young boyfriends, she spent the entire time hiding in the bathroom. Which seems the exact opposite of what an American father of a teenage daughter would do, but hey, they’re French and de moribus non disputandum est, right?
Next comes a musical interlude as a gang of frightening accordionists (and various accompaniment) parade about in what appears to be a disused cathedral. With no intention of damning with faint praise, this is absolutely the most entertaining vignette in the film. It could have gone on three, maybe four times as long and I think I’d have been into it the whole time. But, sadly, like all good things…
His next role is that of an assassin whose charge is to murder a gangster who looks precisely like him. Here the film really first starts to challenge its boundaries. Evidently the murderee, stabbed in the neck, is not quite thoroughly murdered, and when our protagonist is finishing up the job succeeds in the complementary stabbing of his murderer. Eventually one of these men (still brutally stabbed in the neck) – and we don’t actually know which one – makes his way back to the limo where a seemingly shocked Céline gathers him up…and next thing we know he’s healthy and ready for his next gig. Well, that, and talking to apparently an employer in the back of the limo, the employer’s complaint being that some of his clients don’t seem to think his heart is in the work anymore. Mr. Oscar claims that this is mostly due to the fact that the cameras are now so small they can’t be seen anymore. This really brings in the sensation that Mr. Oscar’s job is somewhat that of Invincible Solo Flash Mob For Hire, but to be honest it doesn’t really come back up.
Next he jumps from the limo to murder himself as a banker in an outdoor cafe (a banker whom, we might guess, he was also playing when he first got into the limo for the day, by the nature of the phone conversations he was carrying on at the time). He is then shot innumerable times by the banker’s bodyguards and Céline returns him to the limo where he is once again good as new.
Next, he acts out the scene of being an elderly uncle on his deathbed accompanied by his devoted niece. When this scene has played out the actors actually break character for the first time, each praising each others’ performance but excusing themselves because they had more gigs yet to perform on the evening.
When Céline and an identical limo nearly collide on his way to the next gig, Mr. Oscar sees in that limo someone who is purported to be a former lover, whose current gig is as a stewardess on her last night. Of course, the whole thing plays out like it is, in fact, his next gig, with a bit of a musical number, and some remembrances and regrets on the top of a building overlooking both the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triopmhe before the woman suggests that he should leave before the man she is supposed to meet arrives. Mr. Oscar narrowly avoids being seen by the man on the stairs, but when he gets to the ground floor he finds the woman’s bloody body on the sidewalk outside, victim of a suicide. He is perhaps a bit more horrified than he ought to be, given his own already-twice-demonstrated ability to survive mauling/death that come about as a result of gigs. Or maybe he’s just acting. Narratively, it’s a bit tough to tell.
Finally, he is off to his last gig of the night – and it turns out that the gig is to last all night. Evidently, the house he left to go to work at the beginning of the day would have been a gig as well. It’s gigs, all the way down. Here, inexplicably, he is the patriarch of a family of chimpanzees.
Céline, for her part, returns the limo to a warehouse with a huge neon “Holy Motors” sign, puts on a Les Yeux Sans Visage mask, and leaves. The actress (of course, I totally missed this) was the original who played the daughter in Les Yeux Sans Visage. This doesn’t really make any sense. Then, once she has left and they are all alone, the limousines begin talking amongst themselves about how they believe they are becoming obsolete. This makes little sense as well. And…Fin.
For as visually delightful as the film is (at least, most of the time) it’s a bit of an enigma. OK, it’s a lot of an enigma. It touches on themes of obsolescence and fatalism and the idea that we spend our lives in acting rather than living, but it doesn’t really do anything to develop those themes or to try to put together any sort of coherent reason for the events of the film, much less a coherent plot. It’s a bit of a shame, because the exposition of the film is quite masterfully done. The order of the segments (with the possible exception of the father-daughter scene, which could probably transpose with Monsieur Merde seamlessly) is just about impeccable in how it gradually gives us a bit more insight scene by scene – the problem is, insight into what? Something makes sense, but I’m just not sure exactly what that is (a strange position to find myself in, to be sure), and the final scenes, rather than tie the film together, serve more to give the impression that Carax didn’t know what it was that made sense either. Here we have a director who clearly knows how to make a film even when it appears he doesn’t know what his film is about. In some ways it feels like Fellini’s 8 1/2 meeting David Lynch, where a lost director, instead of making a film about a lost director making a film instead makes a film so deliberately obtuse and outré that it (almost) hides the fact that the director is lost and it’s not actually about anything. And, having tracked down a bit of an interview with Carax about the film, I don’t think he’s going to be offering any more insights than we can glean from just watching the film. I think he truly is as confused about it as we are. And I guess that’s OK, but it does dampen my enthusiasm for the film a bit.