Maybe the most absurd, maybe the most poignant, and certainly among the most captivating films at Cannes this year is Holy Motors, a bizarre tale of a day in the life of a dedicated, mysterious actor, and what seems to be commentary on modern movie making—or faith, or love, or movie-watching. We’ll see.
This though, is a warning, and a temptation.
The film is already and will continue to be divisive (I side with the crowd that believe it to be refreshing and astounding), but regardless, it is unique, very memorable, and worth seeing, and thus worth talking about.
Leos Carax’s mad and brilliant meta-movie follows a talented actor around Paris as he tends to his business of the day: acting for the audience. Each assignment—the exact number of which may vary depending on how you view a few later scenes–calls for the actor to play a very different role, often adopting extensive make-up and costume, one of which includes a grotesque, bearded troll of a man; another is a dying man, and yet another is martial artist in a motion-capture suit.
The film opens on a shot of a crowded theatre. We see the audience, but from behind, as we are among them, watching just as they are. In his limo, Monsieur Oscar is indeed himself—whoever that may be exactly, however he may be defined-but once he arrives at his location for his next assignment, as organized by his driver Celine (Edith Scob), he changes. Denis Lavant plays Oscar, as well as 10 or so other personas in the film, from father to lover, from monster to murderer.
Instantly, there is nothing familiar about this film. The conventions of movies are not so much subverted, but ignored. There is no foundation of the story save for the moments in the limo, where we see Oscar changing from one character to another, often exasperated from his duties and being schedule. That is where we see him as he is, interacting with Celine, equally mysterious; when he leaves the car, methodically or unexpectedly, he is someone else.
And in each ‘someone else,’ Oscar (and Lavant) fully commit, and in most cases pull you in to their small story that appears from nowhere, both asking you and forcing you to forget what came before and what will come after.
Along the way we meet Eva Mendes, a supermodel who seems to be a part of the plans in Oscar’s files, and Kylie Minogue, a fellow actor, who may or may not be a part of an accidental meeting. We also encounter a cemetery with gravestones adorned with ads and websites, a Parisian night that shines in infrared, and an accordion-led music number offered up to the audience as an intermission.
If none of this makes sense that may be the point. We have simply a movie about a hardworking thespian, one longing for the days of bigger cameras and bigger audiences, acting out scenes of love, despair, drama, comedy, and horror in real life, with both willing and unwilling participants.
It may be for those around him in the film, but it is definitely for us, the real audience. Fantastically absurd, outdoing itself one scene after another, Holy Motors will make you cringe, shake your head, laugh, and most importantly, sit contemplative in awe. For all that is abnormal, there is a balance to the film. The second job is sensual, full of beauty and hypnotic imagery (the aforementioned temptation), while the one that follows will linger in your mind for very, very different reasons (the warning).
As for the title, well, the meaning eventually comes into view. Early on though, as he is taken from one assignment to the next, we see clearly (as clear as anything could be in this movie) the film and the title are about what drives us. The question is however, are we driven to absurdity, or by it?