There’s a difference between “strange” and “enigmatic” that goes beyond pure semantics, and though Holy Motors, the latest from Leos Carax, is definitely, audaciously the former I can’t say that the latter applies. It has all the trappings of a movie that is trying so hard to be mysterious that it’s really anything but. I confess that the enthusiastic reception for Holy Motors at Cannes last year and its appearance on many critics’ top ten lists raised my expectations considerably, and while I remain impressed by its aesthetic beauty, gloriously revolted by Denis Lavant’s capacity for shape-shifting, and appreciative of its narrative structure, the film’s thematic content underwhelms in spite of its presumption that you’ll be pondering its images long after the credits roll.
A great actor can play other people so well that, the more he acts, the less he can play himself. About all there is to derive from Holy Motors is that to act is to work and work hard, each day a long, soul-crushing slog that demonstrates this dilemma. No doubt I am very sympathetic to this idea, because I would not be writing about movies were I not. So it is in Holy Motors: Lavant plays a man, as best we can tell, named Oscar, chauffeured around by his driver and confidante, Céline (Édith Scob), in a white stretch limo that stores his many literal and figurative hats. Over the course of the day—Oscar’s work day lasts 23 and a half hours in the film—he will have nine “appointments,” for which he’ll have to transform himself into a distinct (and I do mean distinct) inhabitant of Paris. Each of his characters is perfectly attuned to its milieu: his banker leaves in the morning to the goodbyes of his “children,” and his middle-class father is well-versed in the traits and flaws of a totally different “daughter” and her friends. There are hints that he reprises some of his roles, yet each day and night brings its own challenges and new “appointments.” There’s no guarantee he’ll sleep in the same bed (or the same wig) as the night before, only for Céline to pick him up when day breaks.
In Lavant, Carax finds a perfect actor with which to convey the actor’s predicament. Lavant has rough and wizened features and a short but sturdy frame that allow him to convincingly play bankers and sewer-dwellers, street thugs and dying men, and even a woman. What struck me most about his performance was how physical it was; his looks help him adopt the persona and the characteristics of each person he portrays, but his posture is even more critical, because he must play both athletic and arthritic. I’d hate to have examined his spine after shooting wrapped.
The most physical of Oscar’s appointments involves a trip to a video game studio, for which Oscar dons a motion capture suit and simulates running, fighting, and (I’m not kidding) good ol’ cunnilingus with a red-spandex-clad blond woman for what looks to be some sort of second life-, World of Warcraft-type of entertainment. I get it: this sequence looks “cool” and the virtual reality sex is meant to be weird and provocative, but it’s an illustrative microcosm for all that is right and wrong with the movie. Carax’s use of lighting astounds, as his ability to contrast pitch black with the fluorescence of the video game studio and the motion capture suit sets the precise mood intended, but all I was left with was mood, with nothing deeper. It’s just another of Oscar’s appointments; he’ll soon be finished with his air-thrusting and onto his next creepy job. Moreover, this wasn’t even an effective sequence for Carax to further his main theme, the actor’s dilemma. Because the room is so dark, and Oscar covered head to toe, it’s impossible to actually see him acting. I also thought at first that this appointment required a stuntman (for the fighting, not the air sex), but I’ve since read that Lavant trained as an acrobat; even if Lavant is performing all the stunts, though, I think this last criticism holds.
Holy Motors does deserve credit for its exquisite use of locations. Paris is a familiar setting, even to an American like me, but I have a hard time thinking about a movie that has shot Paris after dark so gorgeously. With each appointment on his odyssey (with The Odyssey serving as a structural guide, if nothing else, as I didn’t detect any strong thematic or plot links), Oscar’s job, and Paris, get darker as he struggles with his acting curse. The most melancholically romantic scene in the movie involves the half hour where Oscar gets to “break character” after crossing paths with a fellow “white limo actor,” played by Kylie Minogue, with whom he has a past. As is typical of Holy Motors, their walk through and onto the roof of the abandoned Samaritaine department store on the Seine’s Right Bank is extraordinarily picturesque, but undermined, here by the shallow lyrics of a song whimpered by Minogue’s character, lamenting—wait for it—how laborious an actor’s life is.
Holy Motors is yet another in a long line of movies that depict, in some way, the process involved in making a movie. But unlike classics in this same vein such as Mulholland Drive and 8 1/2, to which Holy Motors is dying to compare itself, there’s nothing in Carax’s film that can match Lynch’s or Fellini’s in humor, sadness, shock value, or mystery, even if all three are equally bizarre. Of its three attempts at wit, I enjoyed only the first, a musical interlude featuring Lavant and a band of others marching around a candlelit medieval church with accordions (also dazzlingly shot); was nonplussed by another, in which Lavant’s long-nailed, street urchin flower-eater designs a burqa for Eva Mendes (yeah, again, not kidding); and the third, the film’s final scene, felt like a tired trope.
An enigmatic film is something to which I want to return, again and again; an enigmatic film is one I can’t quite wrap my head around, no matter how many times I watch it, because there’s something beyond the beautiful images. While I reservedly enjoyed my first time through Holy Motors, all I saw was surface, and unfortunately I have little desire at present for another trip. Could I watch this a second time, or could I just put in Mulholland Drive?