Hilarious and dull, fascinating and pretentious, there is no doubt that Leos Carax‘s “Holy Motors” is memorable. Whether it’s actually any good is up for debate. Bold and confounding in equal measure, Carax’s first feature in over a decade is less a movie than a collection of sketches about the making of movies, inspired by a handful of projects Carax has tried to realize over the years but which never came together. Carrying a contemptuousness and cynicism about the current state of cinema — “All of it made possible by digital cameras, which I despise” Carax says in the press notes of the film — the helmer both gazes outwards and look inwards in an ultimately sloppy and tremendously bonkers screed.
Carax himself opens the movie, waking up in bed with his index finger turning into a key which opens a door hidden in the wall of his room that opens into a concert hall. And that’s about as normal as it gets for the rest of the film’s running time. Motion capture/latex-suited sex, Eva Mendes‘ armpit being licked by a bloody mouth, talking limousines and a musical interlude by Kylie Minogue are among the images and moments that will be seared into your brain, but the film isn’t quite the lightweight lark that makes it sound. Carax is attempting (mostly unsuccessfully) to explore a variety of genres, while pissing on the conventions of them at the same time. He’s also referencing his own movie career, film history, and god knows what else, in a movie that throws a lot against the wall, hoping that some of it will stick. There’s a saying that goes those who can’t teach, teach gym. And in this, those who can’t get their movie made, sneer at those who can instead. There is a bitter feeling throughout that is hard to shake off, despite stabs at more elegant and romantic sequences.
Leading us through the film is Monsieur Oscar, whose very name seems to be a swipe at the awards-driven segment of the moviemaking culture, as well as a sly reference to the director’s real first two names Alex Oscar (of which Leos Carax is an anagram). Anyway, he spends 24 hours being driven around in a white limo by Edith Scob, emerging as a new character in a new story at each stop, with Denis Levant going for broke in eleven wildly different roles in what is surely the performance of his career. He’s utterly fantastic, and you just wish the rest of the picture were up to the work he brings to the table.
There is certainly no denying that Carax is brimming with ideas to share from his twelve year absence, but that doesn’t mean they are all good or reasoned. Nor will they be completely understood by most viewers (which isn’t necessarily a criticism, but should be noted particularly by those reading over-the-top raves for the pic). When Lavant’s Merde (reprised from “Toyko!“) eats a handful of money as if it were a bag of chips, the film takes on the tone of a project made by a first year college student who is making Very Important Art That Says Something. However, “Holy Motors” is most effective when it takes a more subtle tack, examining the artifice of moviemaking and trying to work through the notion of creating real art and emotion in an entirely contrived environment. Even Carax’s choices of genres to tackle — which include everything from CGI animation to musicals to death dramas to “Before Sunrise“-style romances — lead to some interesting places. Meanwhile, other moments — such as Merde napping on Eva Mendes lap, naked, with a giant erection, are shruggingly provocative. We’d be more interested if Carax had recorded the phone call he made to Mendes’ people about the part — that would’ve been far more fascinating, and would have actually fallen in line with much of the thematic arc of the picture.
“Holy Motors” is ultimately a difficult movie to pin down or assess properly. It is no doubt the work of an energized filmmaker (unlike Bernardo Bertolucci who returned after nine years with the tepid “Me And You“) and that can be exciting, and the film is brilliant in small flashes. But it is also wildly uneven, obtuse, and sophomoric. We’ve heard comparisons tossed around to David Lynch, but what Carax is missing is that even with Lynch’s seemingly surreal and random approach, there is (generally) a clarity of focus that guides his pictures. “Holy Motors” requires the viewer to bring their own mood and mind, and that’s fine, but it more often than not fails to make peeling back the layers all that satisfying. It’s definitely the most distinct work that will play the Cannes Film Festival by any stretch, but many have mistaken that for the best. Carax has created a church to his loves, concerns, woes and spite for moviemaking all in equal measure, but worshipping there won’t necessarily lead to cinematic salvation. [C or more accurately WTF]