If I were to observe an open heart surgery as a series of procedures sans narration, I might at various moments throughout the process be repulsed, then fascinated. I’d have no idea what would come next and so I would be compelled to keep watching from a curiosity standpoint – spellbound by the procedure in its unfettered access. Then when it was all over and the body had been sewn back up, perhaps I’d remark that it was fascinating. But there would be no drama to engage my emotions. It certainly wouldn’t qualify as a movie with a plot. Just an array of maneuvers connected together by a common operation. Such is the experience of Holy Motors.
Holy Motors is one of those unconventional fantasies that Luis Buñuel or Federico Fellini or David Lynch might direct. Except those directors usually have *ahem* a discernable point. Basically this is a accumulation of sketches strung together that tells the story of Monsieur Oscar who travels to miscellaneous meetings in the back of his white stretch limo. Before exiting his vehicle, he dons assorted disguises for each one. There’s some exposition in the beginning that implies he’s an actor being watched by an audience. The cameras are invisible, an offhand remark informs us. For each assignment, he dons a different costume as these mini movies recall various genres: a melodrama, a gangster flick, a musical, etc. Holy Motors is a series of visual short cuts.
The most memorable of these vignettes is a rumination on the fairy tale, Beauty & the Beast. French director Leos Carax has only made 5 features (and a few shorts) since 1984. As an elaboration of his own segment from the cinematic triptych Tokyo! Lavant plays a monster named Monsieur Merde (even non-French speakers understand that word). He’s a red haired and bearded creature that recalls a satyr from Greek mythology. Here he kidnaps a beautiful model (Eva Mendez) on a fashion shoot, from Père Lachaise Cemetery and absconds with her deep within the catacombs of Paris. What happens next is sort of symptomatic of every tale. We’re captivated with what might take place, then led through each story simply to find it goes nowhere. Each narrative starts out with promise and then deteriorates into a non ending. This one is particularly sad as it is desperate to shock. It ends stirring feelings of embarrassment by the viewer for actress Eva Mendes. How did she get roped into this? I wanted to rescue her from the ugliness.
Much has been written on Holy Motors as this hard to classify, visionary art piece, but it really doesn’t seem all that innovative unless you consider stringing a collection of short films together a radical concept. Holy Motors contains little that is pretty or joyful. Leos Carax directs his frequent alter-ego, actor Denis Lavant. The 51-year old French star reluctantly journeys from appointment to appointment with nary a smile. He wears disguises with an unemotional professionalism not because he wants to, but because he has to. In a succession of vignettes, Monsieur Oscar assumes 11 characters including a beggar woman, an alien by way of a motion capture suit, a lecherous monster, a disappointed dad, an accordionist, an assassin, a dying man, and a former paramour in a perplexing bit in which pop star Kylie Minogue sings. Even her song is joyless. Lavant plays a mostly misanthropic bloke in each piece. He’s rather unlovable and kind of repulsive. Slowly over time we grow sorry for this individual. If we are to presume that Holy Motors is a movie about the making of movies, then I can only deduce director Leos Carax’s viewpoint is that they’re a drudgery to perform. While some have championed the images as a celebration of film. I see it more as a wake.