Holy Motors arouses disbelief

French film-maker Leos Carax returns to the silver screen with the immensely bonkers Holy Motors.  His first feature film since 1999’s Pola X, this Denis Lavant fuelled drama is clearly the spawn of years’ worth of unusual creative juices.  French artists of all kinds often display a taste for the truly off-beat and Carax’s latest is no exception.  Love Holy Motors or hate it, odds are good it will prove to be the year’s most bizarre cinematic experience.

Holy Motors is nearly impossible to adequately summarise.  To say the film follows a man (Lavant) as he is driven around Paris in a limousine conducting “appointments” wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it only scratches the surface.  Carax himself appears onscreen in an airport hotel room where a secret door opens into a vast, dream-like cinema in which a large audience is suspended in time.  This haunting scene soon gives way to the introductions of Lavant’s rogue (if that is indeed what he is) Monsieur Oscar, a master of disguise; able to transform his appearance and mannerisms at will.  In many ways he is playing an actor where the world is his stage.  The course of one mere day sees Monsieur Oscar take on a wide variety of roles: father, banker, beggar, hit man and just maybe Berberian Sound Studio’s “dangerously aroused” goblin.  The situations and scenarios in which Monsieur Oscar finds himself often honour and mock cinema at once, with the absurdity of performance fully on display.  Along the way he encounters a few familiar faces.  Eva Mendes has a central role in Holy Motors’ most shocking (and thanks to a brilliant skewering of the fashion industry, funniest) sequence.  In the final minutes, Kylie Minogue appears to sing “Who Were We?” in character of Eva (or is it Jean?).  Yet the exquisite oddity that permeates each minute of Holy Motors and takes grotesque form in Lavant is the unopposed star of the show and will linger longer after the film’s final scene draws to a close.

Lavant is entirely captivating as he transforms from one baffling character to another.  He is thoroughly convincing in each incarnation, sometimes disturbingly so.  There is no overstating his importance to what succeeds in Holy Motors.  As for the film itself, expectation will heavily play into how one might receive it.  Make no mistake; Holy Motors is proper French art house fare.  There is no cohesive narrative that brings Carax’s script together.  Satirising and paying tribute is the end rather than the means.  Being freed of the assumption that there’s a bigger picture may allow for each segment to be better appreciated.  However, such an approach will not make it easier to believe that anything happening on screen matters.  Holy Motors is an extremely difficult film to invest in, as it becomes quickly evident that the consequences of the characters’ actions are, in fact, wholly inconsequential.  This being the case, once the novelty wears off, the film begins to drag.  It retains and renews the freak-show quality, but to what end?  Carax obviously has an active imagination, but Holy Motors does little to prove he can see a fully formed concept through.  What he has composed with Holy Motors surely has artistic merit and the pieces work well enough on their own, but as a coherent single cinematic work the failure to truly engage the audience stands out.

For all its successes and failures, Holy Motors is unquestionably and uncompromisingly unique.  Lavant is astounding as the metamorphosing lead.  That Monsieur Oscar’s true nature remains a mystery that frustrates is largely down to Lavant thoroughly captivating the audience.  If only Carax had a script to match his star’s commitment.  Instead, Holy Motors cruises along, happy to simply nod and wink without saying much of anything.  There’s plenty of shock to be had, but true substance would have gone a long way.  7.5/10

Holy Motors is in  UK cinemas 28 September

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