While Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” leaves viewers with dozens of questions due to its deliberate lack of a conventional narrative structure and any exposition whatsoever, the ideas that Carax explores in the film become rather clear after one’s initial befuddlement over the story details subsides. Of course, the film is so unlike anything audiences have ever seen before, brimming with surrealism in addition to the aforementioned ambiguity, that it will take many people several viewings for such subsidence to occur. I didn’t realize until the second time I saw “Holy Motors,” for instance, that Carax succinctly foreshadows the overarching subject-matter in the very first sequence, during which a menacingly gigantic black dog wanders through the aisles of an old-time movie palace showing King Vidor’s 1928 silent film “The Crowd,” as Carax himself looks on, because I was at first so preoccupied by the bizarre images. But the symbols actually couldn’t be more precise: “The Crowd” dealt with the loss of the individual (and, by extension, the self) in society at the hand of modernization, the same concept that Carax goes on to explore in “Holy Motors.” The specific form of modernization he is concerned with is the technological evolution of cinema, which has thrust the traditional practices of the art-form to the precipice of death (hence, the black dog in the antiquated theater).
It can be inferred that Carax laments the demise of traditional filmmaking prodedure/equipment–his protagonist openly longs for the good old days of his profession, when the technology he worked with was less opaque, and in the film’s final scene, personified limousines (yes) fear their eventual mechanical obsolescence–but this has not deterred the director from continuing his career, shooting on digital for the first time here. In this respect, “Holy Motors” plays like Carax’s response to the commonly held, but practically bankrupt idea that modern digital technologies have empowered independent filmmakers to more purely bring their visions (i.e. manifestations of identity/the self) to life, as there are fewer budgetary constraints. Realizing that the medium has actually become more homogenous in the age of the computer, despite the perpetual insistence to the contrary by the purveyors of new tech, Carax approaches “Holy Motors” as a sort of challenge to legitimately invent and and self-express in this new era of cinema.
And that he does, as “Holy Motors” both redefines the accepted view of what a film can/should be and exists as a vision that is singularly Carax’s. Protagonist Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) moves from one “appointment” to the next, in which he takes on identities as diverse as an elderly woman beggar, an erection-toting troll who kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes), and a motion-capture actor — complete with impeccable prosthetics that he applies while riding to each job. M. Oscar once references advanced, invisible cameras capturing everything–alluding to the main theme about the loss of individual identity (M. Oscar lives only to embody others) as technology modernizes–indicating that he and colleagues in his profession are perhaps reality television stars, but he never elaborates. This simultaneously episodic and mystery-shrouded premise not only functions as Carax’s way of cramming nearly a dozen of his favorite genres into one film (the ultimate artistic expression of his self), but also his comment that cinema can be exhilarating when it defies convention by spelling little out for the viewer, a truth that has been lost especially on contemporary audiences (perhaps because we have become used to modern technology doing our thinking for us, so in the rare event that an artist forces us to think critically, especially about ourselves, we are repelled).
Indeed, “Holy Motors” is best read as Carax’s existential manifesto railing against the contemporary cinematic (and social) hegemony–not unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 masterpiece “Contempt,” which had a more pointed target but still exuded the same spirit–than a film with a specific, arguable thesis about the topic it explores. After all, if Carax’s deliberately enigmatic storytelling says anything that can be summarized in a sentence, it’s “I don’t need a fucking thesis,” beyond the foundational identity-technology presupposition; he’s a pioneer, not a pontificator. Some will find this unwillingness to operate within the accepted confines of the medium arrogant and unworthy of attention on principle alone, but it’s hard to deny that Carax proves his point because he makes one of the most engagingly surprising and aesthetically provocative films of the year outside of said confines. Working with what essentially amounts to nine different short films, the filmmaker is able to run the gamut in terms of both images and emotions. M. Oscar’s trip to the motion-capture studio is especially memorable, a sensory experience of light and sound. Another sequence in which he acts as a father picking up his teenage daughter from her first party couldn’t be more different, beginning benignly (even sentimentally), but soon giving way to a jarringly hostile dynamic between the two. There’s also an accordion-filled entr’acte, as well as a musical number sung by Kylie Minogue (!) that would be as seemingly out-of-place as the “Wise Up” sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” if anything could possibly seem out-of-place in this potpourri of a movie. Oh, and I’m forgetting the–wait, to rattle off any more of M. Oscar’s appointments would be to unfairly spoil the experience for you.
While “Holy Motors” is undoubtedly an auteur work, it isn’t entirely Carax’s show. Lead actor Denis Lavant is equally responsible for the movie’s success within each “appointment” story, embodying every character in such believable ways (at least as believable as the surrealist style allows) that the viewer never dismisses the whole thing as a gimmick. That Lavant flawlessly executes nine different roles with wildly different tones, taking on both sexes and a variety of ages, is a gargantuan accomplishment in and of itself, but that his work supports Carax’s overarching goals for exploration so well makes the performance transcendent. M. Oscar is as ambiguity-laden as a character could possibly be, but Lavant leverages this ambiguity to tell us more about the man than concrete description ever could — which is, likewise, Carax’s modus operandi for the film on the whole. You’ve never experienced a movie like “Holy Motors,” but if you’re open to engaging on Carax’s terms, perhaps multiple times before what he’s attempting fully clicks in your brain, the rewards are immense.