Where to start with Leos Carax’s gleefully challenging Holy Motors, the closing film at this year’s Cambridge Film Festival? Am I really going to be able to write anything at all useful about such a self-consciously subversive cavalcade of weirdness? This is the type of thing that film students could mine for years and end up with a doctorate on, and I suspect that anything I commit to posterity now, after one viewing, is going to look laughably shallow fairly quickly but: I was there, I saw the thing, and I ought to make some kind of record of my reaction to it.
Basic description then: Holy Motors depicts a day in the life of Oscar (played with bewildering brilliance and versatility by Denis Lavant, in the very definition of “not an easy gig”), presumably some kind of performance artist for hire, as he’s ferried in a stretch limo between various locations in Paris to fulfil a number of wildly different appointments. Each appointment involves him putting on an elaborate disguise in the back of the car before being let out to assume a role somewhere by his elegant middle-aged chauffeur Céline. These roles could be pretty much anything: an old woman beggar, an assassin, a dying man, the concerned father of a teenage girl or, in the film’s most arresting sequence, a green-corduroy besuited agent of chaos named in the credits as M. Merde. On completion he returns to the limo and has a smoke or a drink while reading the file on his next assignment. Day turns into evening, then night, but Oscar doesn’t get to rest till he’s kept all nine of his appointments. Along the way we witness some truly strange and unexpected incidents and behaviours, along with some that seem unsettlingly mundane and familiar, and where the film is going to go next and what type of interaction is coming up are utterly unguessable. The prologue and early parts of the film reminded me more of anything of Matthew Barney’s gloriously absurd Cremaster Cycle*, in which prosthetic-adorned but rigorously straight-faced performers run through elaborate and surreal rituals and procedures for no readily apparent reason, and when M. Merde is let loose at an Eva Mendes fashion shoot in what looks like Pere Lachaise cemetery it feels like sanity’s wheels have really come off – it’s as frightening, dreamlike, ominous and inappropriately hilarious as David Lynch at his most potent. But the film can’t be dismissed as just an exercise in shocking an audience, as the mood changes and even mellows as night draws in and a really affecting undercurrent of melancholy is established.
Carax (best known for Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) hasn’t made a film in thirteen years and Holy Motors feels on one level like an attempt to make a kaleidoscopic portmanteau of all the different genres he might have otherwise had a crack at in that time. We get scenes that could be out of thrillers, family dramas, tear-jerking tragedies, even a couple of musical interludes and, in the sequence when Oscar is simulating a love scene while wearing a motion-capture suit, some very well-rendered, if wholly inappropriate for children, CGI. The film seems to be constantly referencing other films (I kept thinking of Eyes Wide Shut and Scorsese’s After Hours, for example, and Edith Scob who plays Céline at one points puts on a mask reminiscent of the one she wore in Eyes Without A Face, fifty-two years ago), though it never lets itself settle into one groove – the very first shot is of a sleeping cinema audience, and maybe Carax wanted to put out something to shake people out of their preconceptions. Holy Motors certainly does that, unless that is you were actually expecting a film where a man’s loving wife and child are played by chimpanzees. There’s also a sense of mourning for the passing of performance as a communal experience: Oscar bemoans the increasing invisibility of cameras, and in the final scene there’s a speculative conversation about the encroaching redundancy of this kind of artist. Whatever, Holy Motors shows that cinema can still throw up something genuinely surprising every now and then. I think it will be a while before people are through talking about this one.
*I saw one of the five Cremaster films at the cinema about ten years ago (Cremaster 3, the long one set in the Chrysler building) and it was total barking genius, but good luck trying to catch any of them now – Barney has decreed that they’ll never be released on DVD, other than the one half-hour segment available as “The Order”.