Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2012 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 9th, 2013
From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar...
Here's the thing: if you're going to watch Leos Carax's Holy Motors, you really shouldn't read this review. Or any review, for that matter. What you should do is just watch it and trust that it's going to deliver something interesting. I can't guarantee that you'll like it or understand it, but I'm almost positive it will keep you engaged. The less you know, the better off you'll be, because the core joy of the film is observing the way it evolves and pulls the rug out from under itself time and time again as it proceeds. It's a film where just about anything can happen, and it usually does. I can't help but feel that even to describe the set-up of the film counts as a sort of spoiler, so proceed at your own risk.
Still around? Fair enough. Our film begins with a man (Carax himself) waking up in the middle of the night. He walks over to a wall and finds a hidden door, which he opens with a key attached to his middle finger. Beyond the door is a movie theatre filled with sleeping patrons. An ominous-looking dog walks down the aisle of the theatre towards the screen. Cut to an ordinary-looking man (Denis Lavant, The Lovers on the Bridge) departing his home and heading off to work. He gets into the back of a limousine, proceeds to apply a fake nose, some old-age makeup and a long wig. When he arrives in the city, he gets out of the limo and spends some time posing as an old beggar. When he's done with this, he gets back in the car, removes his makeup and begins putting on another costume.
And so it goes, from one stop to the next, as Carax takes us on a journey that structurally resembles David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (another day-long limo ride from one self-contained scene to another) and which otherwise resembles...um...well, nothing I can recall, honestly. I suppose the more recent work of David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) comes to mind, but vibe is different. While there's certainly a Lynchian strangeness and melancholy to the proceedings, there's also an infectious strain of joyfulness that is thrillingly at odds with the mournful story arc the film offers.
That disconnect may well be the key to understanding the film. Ultimately, it's yet another movie about movies, though much less self-satisfied and much more inventive than such films often are. Time and time again, the movie expresses dismay about the manner in which so many practical technologies are dying at the hands of entirely digital ones. I suppose it's a fitting irony that this great-looking flick was shot digitally, though Carax insists that he begrudgingly took this approach for financial reasons. The theme is accentuated most strongly in a weird, sweet, funny coda that offers an explanation for the film's title and symbolically encapsulates its ideas. Death seems to be the inevitable destination of the story Holy Motors is telling (not to mention many of the smaller stories within the larger story), yet the movie itself is filled with life. Carax makes a strong assertion that movies are dying while simultaneously providing ample evidence to the contrary.
Denis Lavant turns in a remarkable performance -- several of them, actually. Over the course of the film, he's a banker, a old lady, a motion-capture artist, a mad troll, a variety of thugs, a disapproving father and quite a few other things. At one point, he even provides us with a thrilling entr'acte by leading a group of accordion players through an empty cathedral and performing a kickass rendition of R.L. Burnside's "Let My Baby Ride" (an exceptionally unexpected and exhilarating moment in a movie filled with unexpected and exhilarating moments). Other supporting players are along for the ride, include Kylie Minogue (who offers a musical number), Edith Scob (who brings a level of gracefulness to the role of Lavant's chauffeur) and Eva Mendes (who dons a veil and performs a lullaby for a naked man with an erection while said naked man chews on her hair -- no, really), but this is Lavant's show. He eagerly tackles every challenge Carax throws at him.
I will admit that I admire Holy Motors mostly on a technical level. It's a little difficult to engage with the film emotionally, and some will certainly find the movie's excesses a bit off-putting (there are some moments of fairly brutal violence along with the aforementioned full-frontal nudity). It's definitely a movie for people in love with and concerned for the general welfare of movies, the sort of movie that is going to play much better for the people who regularly frequent their local arthouse cinema and have strong feelings about the issues discussed in Side by Side than it will for the casual moviegoer. If you're part of the film's intended audience, odds are pretty good that you'll be giddy about it. If not, you may find the whole thing more than a little exasperating ("What?!" my wife exclaimed as the film concluded, shaking her head in dismay). I really dig it, but it's the sort of film I would never dream of recommending to most people I know ("Nah, you should see Lincoln. It's excellent," I'd say). In other words: you should definitely see this movie. Or not.
Holy Motors (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. Shot with the RED One digital camera, the film offers strong detail and bright, vibrant colors. Depth is a bit lacking at times, particularly during some of the darker scenes, but otherwise it's a solid transfer. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fine, delivering what it needs to but never really going above and beyond. I couldn't help but feel that a couple of the louder scenes and musical numbers needed more oomph, but it's a minor complaint. Supplements include a rather enigmatic "The Making of Holy Motors" featurette (47 minutes), an interview with Kylie Minogue (13 minutes) and a couple of trailers.
In our age of remakes, sequels, ripoffs and incessant test-marketing, there are a lot of complaints about a general lack of originality in modern movies. Want something original? Here you go. I guarantee you've never seen anything quite like it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated