'Holy Motors': Holy moly!
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Holy Motors," by Leos Carax, will confound viewers who sit down to it expecting the familiar, curving three-act structure Hollywood has defined as modern movie storytelling. But if you let it come to you with its elegantly clumsy mixture of characters and settings and action, its irregular shapes and sharp-shattered edges make up a big and brilliant picture that shifts as it moves. It's a film with references inside it -- an intermission of accordion music that's a cover of a song by American bluesman R.L. Burnside, a mask worn by an actress that explicitly nods to a cinema classic she starred in 52 years ago, a story about the emotional and physical challenges of making art, marking the first time writer-director Carax has had a feature on-screen since 1999. But the references also don't matter. I knew some of these things when I first saw it and I found out some of them later, but regardless, I was stunned. "Holy Motors" is intricate and smart, but it is not just the sum of its parts.
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In Paris, Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), a plush, well-dressed businessman with a statesman's head of platinum hair, gets into the back of a stretch limousine with Celine (Edith Scob) behind the wheel, telling him of a busy day of appointments. Oscar then ... changes into the rags of a female beggar, hunching out of the limo to shuffle and panhandle in agony. And back to his car -- whose rear is a cabinet of costumes and makeup and an old-time actor's changing table -- to live other lies as lover, killer, capricious lunatic, father, and, occasionally, himself. And as Oscar goes from life to life with all the artifice of film in every scenario and transaction and the blasé get-it-done mechanics of a maitre d' checking on the tables of a busy restaurant -- the scenes jump from visual splendor to real emotion to strangled comedy to boisterous musical numbers or sad songs of lost love. And Mr. Oscar matters to the people whose lives he visits, and they matter to him.
And I thought of the words of that pop philosopher and one-hit wonder Joan Osborne: What if God was one of us? Writer and director Carax (also briefly playing a sleepy projectionist in a world of films and dreams in the opening sequence) instead might be asking: What if one of us were God? Or what if none of us were God, rather, and we had to pick up his slack? With its secret armada of ludicrous white limousines taking men and women through the streets and alleys and cul-de-sacs and parking garages of Paris between scenes -- all the world a soundstage, it seems, and all the men and women merely players -- "Holy Motors" suggests a conspiracy of kindness, the world run by some secret and surreal force. And that's impossible. Or as impossible as any other attempt to explain how the world is so full of people and life and love, and so then the suggestion becomes that there are no holy motors (a point the film makes with bizarre, brilliant bluntness in its coda) or divine engines that run the world in its infinite strangeness, just us and our big machines and huge, complicated lives. Which is even more incredible, in a way.
From the time-skipping almost-resurrections of "Cloud Atlas" to the omniscient yet godless eye-on-everything view of small-scale epic books like Chris Ware's "Building Stories" or Gregoire Bouillier's "The Mystery Guest," you could argue that "Holy Motors" is part of a recent trend of mythic, magical-realist (and realistically magical) group of recent works that try to capture and explain even a part of the complexity of human life -- masks and true selves, everything and nothing -- through post-modern spiritual-but-secular art. Carax's film has the bizarre boundlessness of a David Lynch film, but also the hearty "There's no business like show business" wistful enthusiasm found in any story of a veteran actor on the road.
Lavant's work in the lead role, or roles, is stunning: physical, fearless, strange, bawdy, delicate, funny and sad. And Scob, from "Eyes Without a Face," is also impressive as a co-worker and caretaker. Eva Mendes is striking as a supermodel under pagan assault by one of Lavant's less restrained incarnations, while Kylie Minogue has a brief, haunting turn as an old lover and co-worker of Oscar's he finds unexpectedly and loses just as fast, her dulcet and sad voice singing "Who were we ... when we were who we were?" into the vast and hushed air of a deserted department story building late at night. Carax has made more of a dream than a story or a film, but it's a dream about stories (the ones we tell people we love, the ones we tell ourselves) and about films (the ones in our hearts and our heads). Funny and heartbreaking, brilliant and bizarre, "Holy Motors " is one of the best films of this year and a wholly unique work mixing compassion, chaos and comedy to startle us into seeing and celebrating how improbably lovely and sad our improbable lives on this unlikely planet are.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.