The only new mainstream release this weekend is some throwaway romcom POS, but I’m okay with that. For one thing, there’s a massive pop culture tidal wave hitting theaters next week, and the studios are right to steer clear of it. Secondly, this means that cinephiles get a free weekend to do some Christmas shopping without the worry of missing anything. Thirdly, when mainstream multiplexes fail, a true movie lover can always count on arthouses to deliver.
Two very fascinating films hit the Fox Tower yesterday. Of the two, I decided to start with the stranger and more obscure film that was less likely to hang around. I refer to Holy Motors, a French film that somehow made it into a Regal theater without getting rated by the MPAA. This is one of many reasons why the Fox Tower is quickly becoming my favorite theater in Portland.
Anyway, I didn’t know a thing about Holy Motors except from what I saw in the trailer. If you actually clicked the link to see the trailer, you’d know this means that I went into Holy Motors without knowing a single goddamned thing about it. Still, I was very anxious to see the film, eager to hear the story that provides some measure of context and explanation for all the bizarre visuals in the trailer.
That really was very foolish of me. In truth, the entire film was exactly like that trailer: Alarmingly creative, visually solid, intellectually opaque, and crafted in a very frustrating manner. This is a movie that steadfastly refuses to tell a cohesive story, to follow any kind of conventional logic, or to explain any of the myriad batshit things going on.
For example, if you look at the trailer around 1:47 in, you’ll see a man with a key built into his right middle finger. Would you like to know who this guy is? Would you like to know how and why his finger so elegantly serves as a key? Would you like to know his place in the story? Well, so would I. The guy appears in the first five minutes and is never seen or heard from again, much less explained. I know that he was played by Leos Carax, who also wrote and directed this anarchy, but that’s it.
As best I can figure it, the film follows a very peculiar man named Monsieur Oscar, played by Denis Lavant. I stress that he’s called “Monsieur Oscar” because “Monsieur” may actually be his given name for all I know. I’m not sure about that, but better safe than sorry. Anyway, Oscar travels through Paris in a limousine driven by his faithful assistant, Celine (Edith Scob).
The limo works as a sort of dressing room/green room for Oscar, as it’s where he keeps all manner of costumes and disguises. We follow Oscar through various “appointments,” in which Oscar dresses and acts as totally different people. And these appointments are all bizarre in their own unique ways. There’s one appointment in which Oscar provides motion capture of combat, action, and what I can only assume is sex, all for reasons that are completely unknown. There’s another appointment in which Oscar dresses up as the beastly Monsieur Merde, who proceeds to kidnap and abuse a beautiful model named Kay M (Eva Mendes).
(Side note: It seems that M. Merde originated from the short film “Merde,” a previous Lavant/Carax collaboration for an omibus film called Tokyo!)
But then we get the truly crazy appointments. We see Oscar play a dying man whose niece (Lea/Elise, played by Elise Lhomeau) is at his bedside, only to later find out that the niece is an actor as well. This raises all manner of questions regarding the appointments in which we see Oscar with people who are ostensibly his family. Are they actors too? Are any of these characters the real Oscar?
Ah, but here’s the coup de grace: On no less than two separate appointments, Oscar is sent out on what appears to be an assassination, except that the killers and the victims are all played by Denis Lavant. The guy kills himself, or at least someone who looks uncannily like himself, and he does it twice. We never get an explanation — not even a bullshit one — for how this came to be.
What’s more, we never learn who hires Oscar to do all of this. Though there’s some throwaway line about hidden cameras, we never learn who’s watching these scenes. We learn why Oscar continues to act in this profession — something about the inner beauty of his performances — but that’s it. None of the scenes form anything that remotely resembles a coherent narrative, and there is no reason given for anything that appears on the screen. In fact, there are some things in this film — particularly at the very beginning and the very end — that are so batshit crazy, they couldn’t possibly have any rational explanation in a real-world context.
What makes it far more frustrating is that there was clearly a brain at work here. It’s plainly obvious that the filmmakers were trying to convey various themes about mortality, sexuality, identity, the nature of beauty, and a host of other subjects. Unfortunately, the film is simply too damned opaque for anyone to figure out what the filmmakers were going for. The unanswered questions, the resolutely disjointed plot, and the general unending nonsense happening on the screen all distract from whatever messages the film might have been trying to get across. Nevertheless, as baffling as the film got at times, I can’t say that I was ever bored. Make of that what you will.
I’d also like to point out that this film is quite remarkable on a technical level. The visuals range from solid to mind-blowing. Denis Lavant plays a whopping eleven roles, and somehow manages to knock every one out of the park. The rest of the cast isn’t bad either, though I have to wonder if Eva Mendes read the script before she agreed to come onboard. Kylie Minogue also deserves special mention for her meaty role, her lengthy musical number, and the old pop song of hers that was prominently featured in the movie.
Last but not least, I have to spotlight the film’s intermission, in which Oscar leads a group of musicians in a rock accordion cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride.” It’s a great cover, it’s a lot of fun to listen to, and I can only guess how much effort went into it. Sure, it doesn’t make a single lick of sense, but you should know by know that logic in this film is borderline non-existent.
(Side note: When Oscar is counting time at 2:20, he’s actually saying “3! 12! Shit!” If you just asked why, then you clearly haven’t been paying attention.)
Holy Motors… exists. That’s really all I can say about it. The film defies description, but not in a good or a bad way. The film simply is what it is. It’s content to be a weird piece of cinematic abstract art, doing its own weird thing without giving a fuck about what anyone thinks. I can respect that kind of bold creativity, and I can also respect the technical proficiency with which this skill was made. In particular, Denis Lavant needs to bring his unbelievable acting talent to Hollywood ASAP.
Even so, there’s no way I can recommend this movie to anyone but the most hardcore cinephiles. No one else will have any chance at making heads or tails out of it.