In Holy Motors director Leos Carax demonstrates that playful can be profound, bewildering can be meaningful and randomness can have precision. It undermines so many cinematic conventions and yet it is a loving tribute to cinema. Like Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s deliriously funny animation A Town Called Panic (2009) it appears to be a film where the story has been made up on the spot, and yet it is not possible that a work this intricate could not have been strategically planned. Like the dream inspired films of Federico Fellini in the 1960s, Holy Motors is funny, melancholic, nostalgic and just self-aware enough to remind the audience that although they can enjoy the sensory experience on screen, thinking further about what the film could be suggesting will deliver the richest rewards.
The basic structure of the film is straightforward – a man played by actor Denis Lavant (a regular collaborator with Carax) is taken around Paris in a limousine and given a variety of tasks where he takes on different personae. His limousine is like an elaborate backstage changing room where he not only physically transforms himself but psychologically seems to fully possess the role he has to play, which is then completely accepted without question by the people he encounters in the real world.
The point and purpose of the various tasks is deliberately left wide open for interpretation. The film hints that they could be the dreams of the people the Lavant character encounters, as if Holy Motors is a visualisation of the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the dream world. Every task could also be regarded as symbolising a cinematic genre: from social realism, to crime thriller, to family drama and even to a Jacques Demy-style musical in a scene featuring an incredible performance by Kylie Minogue. One task that seems to evoke recent French and other European horror sees the Lavant character as a deranged representation of a homeless man. He kidnaps a model played by Eva Mendes and then forces her to wear a burqa in a scene that parodies fears of ‘otherness’.
An earlier sequence sees Lavant wearing a motion-capture bodysuit, dancing in a darkened studio with only the sensors on his bodysuit capturing the light. During the sequence he is joined by a female companion and the pair perform a strange sensual dance. It’s a visually startling scene that is then undermined when the results of their performance is revealed and the audience see the pair as two CGI creatures from a fantasy film animated by their moves. The creation of the illusion is so much more fulfilling than the reveal of the illusion, which seems to be Carax’s main theme in terms of how Holy Motors represents filmmaking and even the meaning of life itself.
Carax is perhaps arguing that seeing the mechanics of cinema and being aware of its tangibility is what makes film great, and the current pursuit of smaller cameras, discrete digital filmmaking and the new verite-style ‘realism’ is removing the magic. Similarly, defining a life by landmark events and occasions loses the joy of the strange and wonderful passages in-between and the moments that don’t make sense in a Hollywood narrative but form who we are. At least that’s one potential way to read Holy Motors. One thing that Carax leaves no doubt about with the film’s final scene is that regardless of how the film is experienced or deconstructed, it all boils down to being a bit of fun. Playful, absurd and whimsical fun that captures so much of why cinema is still something to be treasured and celebrated.