|Image: Artificial Eye|
Leos Carax returned to filmmaking after a thirteen year absence, and the film was subsequently voted by Cahiers du Cinema, France’s sacred cinema magazine, as film of the year for 2012. This sort of context suggests something rather special, and Holy Motors is definitely that. The mad yet simple plot sees Monsieur Oscar, played by Carax’s muse Denis Lavant, travelling around Paris in a limousine driven by Céline (French screen legend Edith Scob) and stopping throughout the day to take on different roles, each of which he invests himself into completely. While this description might sound bland, Oscar’s missions are anything but.
An audaciously bizarre opening makes Carax’s intention clear as a cinema full of sleeping patrons is magically breached: Holy Motors is an electric shock to complacent filmmaking and film watching. Oscar becomes an ancient gypsy woman, a ginger subterranean-dwelling goblin (in a sequence which is actually a sequel to Carax’s segment of the anthology film Tokyo!), a dying man, an enthusiastic accordionist and many others during his day, and every scene is suffused with the glow of pure cinematic magic. The film is by turns confusing and hilarious, daring and depressing, scary and sad, and sometimes all of these in one scene. A gorgeously photographed Paris becomes a bizarre wonderland which Carax explores with a masterful eye.
Even with this strength of direction, the strange premise would fall apart if the lead actor were not up to the requirements of the task. Lucky, then, that we have Denis Lavant ruling the film with a stunning chameleonic performance which deserves award recognition, though may very well not receive it. Impressing both in his physicality and emotional range, Lavant manages to embody an entire tradition of French acting while at the same time creating something excitingly new.
The eclectic supporting cast is also a treat: Edith Scob is wonderful as Céline, and the debt the film owes to the cinematic surrealism of Georges Franju is repaid both in her casting and in a direct visual reference to her starring role in Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage. Eva Mendes does little more than look pretty, which in this case is exactly what is required of her. Kylie Minogue, a highly underrated actress, gives a touching performance and provides one of the film’s most resonant moments in singing the original song ‘Who Were We’ whilst walking through the vast empty interior of Paris’s long-closed Samaritaine shopping centre. The faded glory of this space reminds that, while jubilant and mad, Carax’s film is equally about decay - with the titular company representing his perception of the passing of the desire for flashy motors - and Minogue’s haunting live vocals catch this theme beautifully. Other actors are but cameos, with one in particular a special treat for French cinema buffs, but never fail to impress.
Beguiling, trashy, complex, inscrutable yet open: Holy Motors might leave you confused and angry or it might leave you beaming but it will almost certainly not leave you cold. This is cinema at its most riotous and joyful, a full sensory feast which will stay with you for days. Cahiers were completely right, and this was my film of the year too.