It can often be frightening, yet all the same, a wonderful experience when watching a film that can essentially go in any direction because of the director's control of the audience's disbelief and the nature of the narrative. The film can go anywhere, and there may not be an ending in sight, but you're there for the ride. Filmmakers like Luis Buñuel and David Lynch became famous for the constant twists and turns that create a level of unease within viewers, and Holy Motors follows in a similar fashion, but with Leos Carax's own spin. Carax's return to feature-film directing after a thirteen year hiatus is marked by this 2012 film Holy Motors which features an oddball cast nearly as odd as the film itself (featuring Denis Lavant, Kylie Minogue, Eve Mendes, Edith Scob, and Michel Piccoli). It premiered at the 65th Cannes film festival this past year, and is a film about a man with an odd profession as much as it is a film about the odd profession of being a filmmaker.
The film begins with an audience sitting in a movie theater. They are still, almost as though they are waiting for the film to begin (perhaps they are our reflection, though I must admit that I was sitting much more enthusiastically than this crowd of spectators), and then we realize that we are witnessing Holy Motors' director's dream. Flashes of film studies on the human body that Eadweard Muybridge did in the 1870s appear during the opening credits, and we are now certain that this is a film about cinema's history. Leos Carax, the director of the film, wakes up from his dream of a waiting audience and begins pacing around the room only to arrive at a wall that looks like a forest. He places his hand against the wall and feels "the forest" and his hand becomes a key which fits into an arbitrary hole in the wall that we had never noticed. The wall breaks open revealing a movie theater on the other side. This is essentially the announcement of his return to cinema as he is no longer dormant, the transition from thought to reality is finished and on the screen is the film Holy Motors.
Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) has grey hair and is wearing a slim business suit as he approaches a limousine driven by Céline (Edith Scob). She opens the door for him, and he enters the limo. As they drive away, Céline informs Mr. Oscar that they have nine appointments that day and a dossier for each appointment is provided. Instantly, Mr. Oscar pulls off his hair (revealing it's a wig) and disguises himself as a homeless old lady who begs for coins on the street. After a few minutes, he gets back into the limo and prepares for his second appointment. Instantly, we (as an audience) question what we just saw. What kind of "appointment" was that? What does this man do? Why does he need to dress up like an old lady? His next "appointment" requires Mr. Oscar to wear a motion-capture suit. This particular appointment begins to cross the lines of surrealism as the film transitions between slow-motion and a normal frame rate with distortion of sound, but only for that appointment.
The film progresses with appointment after appointment, and with each appointment we're there for the ride (and so is our protagonist who is riding in the back of the limo). Slowly, it becomes clear that this is a film about the mechanisms of film. With each appointment, a different genre seems to be portrayed, but it's all within the level of disbelief that Carax has created in us. One appointment might be a musical, while the next may be an odd French-modern-western of sorts - and the next may be something entirely different. Gradually, the film begins to introduce ideas concerning the future of photochemical film. Michel Piccoli, a French actor and international film icon who has worked with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard (1963 Contempt) and Luis Buñuel (1967 Belle de jour) plays Mr. Oscar's boss in a scene which discusses how cameras used to be the size of a man but are now smaller than a man's head. This discussion is filled with nostalgia and fear of the unknown. Later within the film, Mr. Oscar dreams that he is driving through a cemetery (a cemetery that, as Carax explained at Cannes, represents the history of film), as he progresses through the cemetery, the film begins to pixelate and ghost as though a computer is glitching. This feels reminiscent to Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) which concluded with the film burning in the projector, but is instead a digital recreation. This "glitching" is ugly and alarming - compared to the beauty and colors of film igniting in the gate of a projector.
With each persona that Mr. Oscar takes, and a song that is sung by Kylie Minogue entitled "Who Were We", this film could be about the ever-changing landscape of cinema, the desire for film to return to the Lumiere brothers instead of so distant from their vision in 1895, the power of a director over his actors, the struggle to find one's voice as a filmmaker, and much more. It could also be a film about a man who has several odd appointments that are at times exciting and dramatic. There are endless ways to enjoy this film, and just as many ways to think about it later.
I went to the Regal Downtown West Cinema 8 in Knoxville, TN to see Holy Motors on December 21, 2012. I didn't think the world would end as the Mayans believed even though the wind roared and power went out in various areas throughout Knoxville, but had the world ended that night, I would have been happy that this was the last film I ever saw. It is a film about the beginning of cinema, and the future of cinema (which is not the end of cinema, but maybe something that will join the rest of film in the cemetery).
My ranking: 5/5