Thursday, 4 July 2013

Review: Holy Motors (2012)



Holy Motors put the pedal to the metal last year when it crashed into cinemas and saw critics explode with hyperbole over the highly anticipated return of Leos Carax. The director had vanished from the scene following 1999’s foray into New French Extremity, the controversial Pola X (1999). But to say he came back with a bang is an understatement. Holy Motors was everywhere;  a Palme d’Or nominee and winner of the Prix de la Jeunesse at 2012’s Cannes Film Festival, to mention but a few.  It became one of the most talked about films of the year, but does it live up to the hype?

Carax’s vision unfolds over a manic 24 hours.  Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) is driven around Paris in a limousine by his trusty driver Celine (Edith Scob).  Over the course of the day, Oscar has nine appointments to attend.  Each appointment sees him transforming into alternate characters, the first being a powerful businessman who then transforms himself into a crippled, old, gypsy woman begging strangers for spare change on a bridge over the Siene. Oscar’s remaining incarnations take place at various locations across the City including a video production facility where he contorts wildly with a latex clad female, the Pere-Lachaide Cemetery where his emerald vagrant crawls from the underground to create mayhem, and a decaying department store that comes alive with the sound of music then culminates in tragedy.

With the help of Celine and his faithful vehicle, Oscar encounters many bizarre circumstances throughout the day and along the way encounters a beautiful model, Kay M played by Eva Mendes and Jean, played by (real life K.M) Kylie Minogue. Each embodiment of character comes hand in hand with its own concise storyline, like a series of vignettes, Oscar leads the journey through a variety of genres that cover drama, comedy, romance, musical, to name but a few as he proceeds through the day with an assortment of changing faces until he has satisfactorily fulfilled each appointment...

 Holy Motors certainly makes no concessions to mainstream cinema and refreshingly so.  While its “plot” is relatively linear, it is the diversity and ambition of the film’s countless transgressions that set this film apart. The film is drenched in cinematic reference and wades through countless allusions. This is very much Carax’s film, he plays God here and it is evident in the film’s introduction where the director himself sets the scene. As he rises from a deep slumber, Carax puts on his sunglasses, lights a cigarette and moves across an eerie bedroom to a feature wall emblazoned with a ghostly forest. As he proceeds through a secret door he emerges on the balcony of a cinema. It is here that the director’s imagination runs riot. It is here where the engines of the Holy Motors are powered and here where the film begins. Holy Motors is to French cinema, what David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is to Hollywood.  Naomi Watts took the helm in Lynch’s vision and embodied a variety of personas.  Here Denis Lavant does the same and is equally as enthralling as he is perplexing.

 Lavant’s Oscar can only be described as a blank canvas, he has the ability to transform into anyone or anything and fully immerse himself into each dimension. He is as thoroughly believable as the begging gypsy lady as he is the straighter roles in the film such as the taxi-driving father. He doesn’t work hard to convince the audience, he simply becomes the character and that is wholly accepted. Lavant has always been a leader in his field and he continues to prove that. Oscar is both repugnant and beautiful; an indecipherable schizophrenic not too dissimilar from his character Alex, in Carax’s earlier offering Les Amants du Pont –Neuf (1991). Holy Motors’ success rests on Lavant’s shoulders.  He gives a high calibre performance like no other and is incredibly worthy of the highest accolade. Predictably, Holy Motors has been ignored by the Academy and Lavant will not be awarded with his character’s brazen namesake. Oscar takes the viewer on a journey through the magic of cinema. He touches on the science of human motion, paying tribute to the early efforts of Etienne-Jules Marey whilst demonstrating the progress of science, by largely ignoring it to reveal the true beauty of “real” human movement.

Fans of Lavant are in for a treat as his frenetic Beau Travail (1999) dance routine is briefly reprised. The scene culminates in an animated screen revealing HR Giger inspired creatures reminiscent of Aliens (1986). Tribute is later paid to Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bette (1946), when Oscar’s emerald vagrant raises from the sewers to abduct a model during photo shoot. There are also occasional references to The Wizard of Oz (1939) at one point from the back-seat Oscar actually sees Paris as the Emerald City. Both Carax and his lead actor revisit a disused department store, which previously features in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, a huge decaying building, strewn with the body parts of useless mannequins and plastic sheets.

It is outside of this building that Oscar is united with Jean – his female counterpart. Jean shares the pixie-like features of legendary French icon Jean Seberg and is similarly doomed. Like Oscar, she speaks of alternate identities and is currently between characters as she is both known as Jean and Eva Grace. This is where Kylie Minogue makes her entrance. Her face is solemn and her burden evident. Minogue puts in a powerful and emotive performance in her most artistic credential since her role as a eunuch in Sam Taylor-Wood’s short film Misfit (1996). As Oscar and Jean walk the floors of the dilapidated store, it is very easy to forget this French speaking beauty’s real identity that is until she bursts into song. However, the song Who Were We? is delivered with affective gusto and in the form of a lament that reverberates beautifully around the emptiness of the building. It is one of the film’s most surprising and touching moments.

As the ride comes to an end, Oscar returns home. The Limo goes into the garage and trusty driver Celine, played by Scob in a small, yet pivotal role, wanders home, the craziness continues leaving you joyously perplexed in the sheer madness of it all. The beauty of the Blu-Ray release is that once it has finished, you can revisit the aesthetic beauty, bathe in its rich and vivid colours and get tangled up in its sticky intertextual web again and again. Holy Motors and its failure to conform to the mainstream is what makes it so eye-stingingly minty fresh. Carax has borrowed key ingredients from French Cinema and beyond and paid tribute by creating something truly original, beautiful and unique. With Carax as auteur, Levant as the masterful actor and Paris as the stage, Holy Motors is bursting to the brim with allusions and influence ensuring it is so much more than just an evocative masterpiece. Holy Motors will leave a stubborn stain on all who see it, for being brave and for being beguiling but mostly for being batshit crazy.

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