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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Holy Motors

In Holy Motors, French filmmaker Leos Carax has made a film that completely defies any one categorization. The film is an utter kaleidoscope of genre-hopping that in a viewer creates a cavalcade of reactions of emotions from scene to scene due to its source reinvention each time the camera returns to haggard looking Oscar (Denis Lavant) at his makeup mirror. There is no true narrative throughline except what the viewer makes of it themselves. It is a film that succeeds better in parts than it does as a whole, but is tied together by perhaps the best lead performance of the year. This is not an easy review to write.

To summarize, if one really can, after a cold open where a elderly man (played by Carax himself) discovers a secret door just beyond his bedroom leading to a run-down theater filled with a sleeping audience watching French silent cinema; we are immediately cut over to Oscar dressed as a middle-aged businessmen, leaving his home for work and saying good-bye to his family as he steps into a white stretch limo and rides away. After settling in, we see that the limo is filled with costumes and props, as well as a studio makeup mirror. Oscar opens a file containing the details of an assignment. When the limo finally comes to a halt, he emerges from the limo dressed and fully made up as an elderly bag lady begging for change on a pedestrian bridge while a sorrowful internal monologue is overheard. At the end of this assignment, the limo picks him up, and we see Oscar remove his makeup and costuming and the pattern continues for his subsequent set of assignments. Throughout the film, we’re treated to Oscar performing his tasks as a motion-capture actor, a monstrous subterranean dweller, a loving but stern father, a Guy Ritchie-esque assassin, a dying uncle, and then finally himself, which leads to a humorous yet sad conclusion. The cast occasionally breaks into song, as performed by what is seemingly a former paramour and another “actor/operative” of Oscar’s (Kylie Minogue), and there is even a cracker of an intermission where Oscar leads a band of accordion players and a few other instrumentalists through an abandoned warehouse performing a jaunty tune.

While it is never clearly defined for whom Oscar is working for and to what end, and each role he plays have nothing in common with one another, the audience is given a sense through his interactions with his limo driver (Edith Scob), and his employer (Michel Piccoli), that his assignments are being recorded for an unseen audience and perhaps he is in the employ of an entertainment company that utilizes actors in the real world for various genre excursions. What is made clear is that no matter what the end task is, Oscar has grown tired of the work and while he certainly puts his all into each role (to the audience benefit), between assignments the “real” Oscar carries a sense of weariness and perhaps even the scars of regret in that some of his roles may be affecting his real life demeanor. When you have the emotional baggage of being a father to a teenage daughter, a murderer, a ghastly monster and cast-aside homeless woman, how could it not? Yet, Oscar carries on due to his love of and respect for “the beauty of the act”.

It’s stunning to watch Levant completely transform himself between each assignment. On-camera, he removes and applies his own makeup and facial hair in places, and adopts completely different mannerisms and vocal inflections for each character he portrays. It’s hard to imagine any actor being to able to pull off portraying a wandering mad-man, eating flowers and hopping around a cemetery frightening women and children, and then turning around and becoming a quiet father picking up his daughter from a school-age party and asking how her night was. What Levant incorporates here is a no-frills style where you absolutely believe him in each role. He drops any pretense of theatricality that a lesser actor would likely incorporate and instead reminds this reviewer of the great Lon Chaney Sr. At times, Levant is completely unrecognizable, and he is far and away the key reason to see the film.

Levant’s performance is so strong, its little wonder the rest of the film has such a difficult task keeping up with him. It has been said that this film had its basis in Carax’s scrawling various ideas onto napkins and then, being unable to incorporate these ideas into fully fledged films on their own, combined them all into the vignettes seen in Holy Motors. As such, the film itself has only the flimsiest of scripting to hold each story together, and forces the viewer to draw its own conclusions as to what the end thesis of the film actually is. For those looking for a film that makes sense in a nominal way, the film will not work at all. From the perspective of judging each part as a collection of short stories, the film is moderately more successful, but there are a few shrug worthy moments. For example, the segment where Oscar is the subterranean troll I found perhaps a bit too disjointed from the realism of many of the other segments and it sticks out both in a positive way for its humor, but also negatively in its absurdity. Absurd film-making is not in itself a detraction, but it requires form and function, neither of which the segment entails. Additionally, the assignment where Oscar is a motion-capture stuntman is quite exciting for the first few minutes it occurs, but its shot in such a static fashion that after the initial burst of adrenaline, I found myself checking the time. Far more successful is the quieter work done with Oscar in more familial roles. The wonderfully silent yet eventually tense car ride between the “father” and his “daughter” is one of the stronger portions of the film, along with the scene where Oscar as the aforementioned uncle on his deathbed imparts his final words to his attending niece. It is in moments like this where the film nails its marks far better, particularly in its individual pay-offs in how the roles affect Oscar emotionally and how he can’t quite shake the resonance of his and his co-stars “actions”. It’s a shame we only saw elements like this in such small bursts.

Holy Motors is an interesting genre excursion with some well-done experimental elements and a fire-cracker of a lead performance. But much like its forced reference to the French classic Eyes Without a Face (a film starring Scob) in its conclusion, it often feels as though the film works harder to wink at the audience through its attempts at cleverness rather than making a coherent statement about cinema and audience expectations which its experimental prologue provided the setup for. I take no issue with a director wanting the audience to work out a film’s greater meanings, but the tools need to be there in the first place. If a film that has little in the way of an overarching plot relies on thematic messaging that is as half-cooked as this, the film itself has little real reason to exist. I recommend for Levant’s master class of acting alone, but unfortunately Holy Motors has little else in its favor.
I give it 2.5 out of 4 (or a C+ if you prefer)
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