Tuesday, 9 October 2012
At the Cannes Film Festival Holy Motors polarised the audience. From one camp, cries of “Sacre...merde!” sounded. They believed that they had seen through the Emperor’s new clothes and that this was a self-indulgent exercise in pretentiousness. From the other camp, there were hollers of excitement and the conviction that they had witnessed a contemporary classic. However, all agreed that this was iconoclastic filmmaking – you may love it, you may hate it, but you will never have seen its like before and once seen, Holy Motors leaves a compelling impression on the viewer.
The friend I went with hated it. By the time we got to the chimps (you have got to stay for “appointment nine”) and the talking limousines (a sly reference to Pixar’s Cars), he was begging for mercy and was found clawing his way to the nearest illuminated EXIT sign.
Holy Motors is a form of cinematic terrorism – a volatile mix of gags, pseudo-philosophy, musical numbers, cinephile film allusions, Kylie Minogue, longeurs and general French nuttiness. The film’s director, Leos Carax, has strapped these ideas to his torso and confronts his audience with detonator in hand. Conventional narrative structures are blown apart and the familiar story-telling building blocks of a beginning, a middle and an end come crashing down around the audience. You just have no idea where Carax is taking you or why. No scene exists in the arena of tidy categories or predictable conclusions. Just when you think you have a handle on something intelligible, the film wrong foots you and slips the bounds of normality. Images are so imaginatively fluid and eccentric that they cannot be processed by trusted mental actions. Everything that we might normally recognise as a film is subverted as we are tipped into an hallucinogenic state which is both recognisably familiar and disturbingly alien. In a word, Holy Motors is bonkers. Good bonkers? Bad bonkers? Judging this kind of movie with such blunt critical notions is a futile enterprise.
The opening scene acts as a philosophical prologue. Carax, playing himself, wakes from sleep and activates a concealed door in the wall of his bedroom that has been wallpapered with a forest background. This first scene lays down the director’s main interests. The film will inhabit that peninsula of the imagination that exists between dream and waking reality, between the known and the secret, the visible and invisible, reason and the absurd. The only thing we are certain of is that we will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Carax has admitted that the forest is a reference to the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost.”
Monsieur Oscar, played by Denis Levant, takes to the roads of Paris in his stretch limo as he moves from one appointment to the next, from one parallel life to the next. Like some tormented soul in the Inferno, he is trapped in a daily round of role playing. The back of his limousine doubles as an actor’s dressing room where he transforms himself with latex, wigs and costumes into a series of characters. For one appointment he is an old woman, for the next, a gangster, the next, a deranged, dead-eyed man and so on. The words from T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, “There will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” could be Monsieur Oscar’s mission statement.
These transformations are so complete that Monsieur Oscar’s sense of himself is eroded. With time, it becomes difficult to distinguish the man from the personas he is called to play. The job, the habitual demand of acting out these roles, has taken over the man and consumed his personal identity. When asked why he does it, he replies, “For the beauty of the gesture.”
With a magpie voracity, Holy Motors references everything from Bunuel to Disney’s Tron, Godard to an Ingmar Bergman death bed scene. Carax ticks off film genres with reckless ambition: the balletic eroticism of a motion capture shoot, the gangster film, the psychological drama, etc. The film oscillates wildly from profundity to inanity, from visual lyricism to crassness. This is achieved with such anarchic enthusiasm and uncompromising inventiveness that I totally succumbed to the film’s energy and magic. Holy Motors is fun, infuriating and loopy. 115 minutes of cinema at its enchanting and provocative best.