Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

The easiest way to explain Holy Motors is to simply show it to someone, but I’ll try to do it here anyway: Oscar, a middle-aged man (Denis Lavant) is driven around town in a limousine to various “appointments.” For each one, he dons distinct costumes and makeup, be it as an old woman, a surreally creepy and insane imp, or a motion-capture performer. In each of these appointments (which are essentially discreet short films), he meets and interacts with new characters in separate genres, and the scenarios often involve maiming, murder, and heartbreak. But then he gets up and returns to the limousine, totally calm and healthy after each appointment (save for one).

If it wasn’t clear, Holy Motors is about filmmaking. Beyond that point it is an experiment in form that resists comprehension. Though each of the appointments works entirely on its own terms, the overarching “narrative” of the job that keeps Oscar moving between these roles is the film’s x-factor, what makes it more than a compilation of unrelated shorts.

Assuming you enjoy the appointment stories, your position on the spectrum of appreciation between “fun diversion” and “game-changing masterpiece” depends on the value you attach to the “hub” story. And though I enjoy the ingenuity of Oscar’s narrative, and the ambiguity of how “real” each of the appointments are in his already-surreal world, I can’t say I see it as a revolutionary overturning of filmic conventions. A great formal idea, to be sure, but it’s folly to equate an un-graspable structure with a coup de cinema.

None of this is to say that the film doesn’t work, simply that some have overstated its complexity. If you buy into it as brilliant on a conceptual level, you’re sure to have a great time. But even if you don’t, there’s plenty to enjoy here: the real core of Holy Motors is not its superstructure, but the little appointment stories themselves, and each of the dozen or so stories are imaginative and compelling in their own right. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the frame story mostly functions as a good excuse to tell a host of wildly different tales, from gangster drama to family drama to romantic musical. Lavant commits himself completely to each story, in a host of performances that show extraordinary range in tone, psychology, physical demands, and age.

Lavant may be more responsible than anything else for the coherence of Holy Motors, but without the vision of director Leos Carax, the film could have been a mess. Carax uses a palette and camera style that suits the full range of genres, and never indulges in the ironic detachment that this structure might have suggested, but could have made the film unapproachable and unfun. But fun it is, and funny, and sometimes heartbreaking, on a number of levels. Holy Motors can surely offer any cinephile at least one thing to love. No matter whether you appreciate it as a whole or in parts, it is an essential experience.


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