With the gradual takeover of digital some people think that cinema is “dead”, whatever that means. But no, wait, let’s ponder what that means. Does the “death” of cinema simply mean that film is dying and everything will be shot digitally in not too many years? That all movies will simply be stored on hard disks? (They sort of are already) Or does it mean that cinema is a dying medium that has lost its meaning? The latter probably couldn’t be further from the truth while the former might be right, but that doesn’t really have to be such a bad thing.
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors has by some been called a movie about the “death” of cinema. Funnily enough, it was shot digitally. But that was mostly for economical reasons. The movie consists of a series of vignettes in which our protagonist, a man called Oscar (Denis Lavant), is driven through Paris in a limo where he acts out various characters. It’s hard to describe the “plot” of this movie in short and it’s not really that kind of movie anyway.
One thing’s for sure: Holy Motors is one of the most crazy, bugfuck and batshit insane movies in recent memory. The movie keeps surprising you with all kinds of weird shit and keeps it coming at a steady pace.
It’s really not easy to criticize or talk about this film after having seen it only once, there’s so much to drink in and fewer movie have a higher quotient of “WTF” moments. But let’s give it a try anyway.
For the most part Holy Motors entertains, or at least keeps you interested. It can be seen a series of loosely connected scenes or ideas strung together with a specific framing device that make up some sort of movie. Even if that is the case, and even if it’s not really “about” anything, in terms of a theme or a story, it would still work pretty well as simply something to admire and enjoy. It’s original, unpredictable, filled with lovely visuals and often very funny. It also features a fabulous central performance by, or rather performances as he’s in fact playing a total of eleven characters (or playing a man who’s playing eleven characters).
But there is more to this film. While it or may or may not be about the death of cinema it’s clearly dealing with the medium and its history in some way. A key to this is a bit where Oscar falls asleep in his limo and we see a shot going through a cemetery which gradually disintegrates, in a digital way, as if we are heading to some sort of digital disintegration. The movie is also filled with references to other movies, like for example when Oscar’s driver puts on mask that’s identical to the mask the actress playing the driver (Édith Scob) wore in the classic film Eyes Without a Face.
One way to describe the “story” is that Oscar is playing out scenes, acting as various characters in various situations (more than once his character is killed or dies). But we never get to know for whom he’s acting or why, and he does a lot of dubious things (like biting the fingers off a woman) but never has to pay the consequences. It’s like the whole world is a stage for Oscar.
Holy Motors is one of those films that’s open to multiple interpretations, which is both a good and a bad thing. A lot of it is simply incomprehensible and doesn’t always work, it seems self-indulgent at times and other times even wrongheaded and silly. But for the most part it’s fascinating and even beautiful. The film gradually reveals a certain sadness and melancholy underlying (Oscar is tired of this lifestyle) so it may not all just be total wankery, even though it undermines the sadness a bit with a final gag that’s maybe a bit too much.
One thing’s for sure: Holy Motors is something truly unique and special and will not soon be forgotten. This film was never gonna win an Oscar or become a box office hit, it’s far too weird for that, but it’s likely that in a few decades it will have a larger cult status then most other films that have come out in the last year.
Final Verdict: Holy Motors is not easy to describe, understand or digest. It’s a movie that requires multiple viewings and is definitely not for everyone. But it’s also sad, funny, beautiful, unpredictable, silly, tasteless, weird and unforgettable. It doesn’t always work, but even when it falters it’s still something truly unique and utterly batshit. Clearly a cult classic in the making.