Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: Holy Motors

Ticket to Ride

Sit down and make yourself comfortable. Ensure your mind is open to all possibilities. When the lights go down and the images burst into vibrant, energetic life, allow Holy Motors to completely wash over you. This is the rare cinematic experience: an eccentric work that's brave, ambitious, thought-provoking, hilarious, emotional and more than a little silly. Allow the considered madness to envelop you, and Holy Motors may well reward you handsomely.

Oscar (Denis Lavant) is, for lack of a better descriptor, an actor. Spending his day riding around in a white stretch limo driven by the loyal, kind CĂ©line (Edith Scob) he carries out a series of strange assignments. Each 'role' he plays requires massive commitment: elaborate costume changes, intense emotional involvement and even extreme physical transformations. We follow this enigma of a man over the course of a single day in Paris as he engages in all manner of unusual activities.

Holy Motors - which is writer / director Leo Carax's first feature film in over a decade - opens with shots of early silent film before pointing the camera directly at a cinema audience (some snoozing in a background). Carax himself then awakens within the film, and through a surreal series of events finds himself in the same cinema as a group of large animals prowl the aisles. Carax - somewhat echoing the opening of Persona, whether intentionally or not - makes us abundantly clear of the artifice of his film from the outset, and what follows is a series of gloriously surreal, deliriously cinematic events. This is a film well versed in the aesthetics and nature of motion pictures, and is willing to embrace and subvert them in equal measure. That is always a treat.

Over the course of the film, Oscar performs in a whole range of human roles & experiences. The characters surround him express concerns that he seems tired and depressed (he himself is vocally disappointed that he doesn't get to visit the forest on this particular Parisian day), yet he's forced to completely reinvent himself and commit to new situations from one assignment to the next. Lavant's performance is a triumph - playing almost a dozen distinct characters, he is completely believable in each. There are minor roles and extended cameos from others - including Kylie Minogue and a silent Eva Mendes - but the screen belongs to Lavant. He is an actor playing an actor, and through his performances he reflects a huge emotional spectrum. Yet we're constantly reminded that it's an act, and in doing so Carax and Lavant allow us to reflect on our own relationship with the cinematic image: it's a mere construct, but one which has the power to move, amuse and entertain us in an endless variety of ways. The range of topics the film addresses are broad: definitions of beauty, the challenges of parenthood, the evolution of technology, and so on. While this is absolutely a film with an entirely unique identity, favourable comparisons can be drawn with the thematically rich likes of Synecdoche, New York or the films of Guy Maddin. It would be potentially pretentious if it wasn't so playful and self aware.

The assignments themselves are episodic affairs, but the film is a coherent, complex whole. While certain sequences provide a sharp burst of intense emotion, many are surreal and deliciously comic. Taken individually, several emerge as some of the more arresting, memorable scenes of recent years: a fantastic instrumental 'interval', a weird yet captivating balletic motion capture session and the welcome return of Monsieur Merde (the beastly protagonist from Carax's segment of the Tokyo! anthology) are amongst the highlights. The final 'assignment' also has a killer punchline, which I'm going to preemptively but confidently declare to be this year's finest visual gag. As with many films that throw everything at the screen, there are a handful of awkwardly realised ideas or scenes that don't quite resonate as strongly as others. The scene just before the credits roll is particularly peculiar as the film takes a final turn towards the straight-up cartoonish. But the vast majority of the ideas and characters hit their mark with precision. The result are beautifully considered self-contained stories that ultimately form a single thrilling, thought-provoking feature film. It's expertly made as well - barring a few grainy low light sequences, there are few criticisms that could be leveled at the look of the film.

Holy Motors really is something else - batshit insane, yes, but remarkably so. I absolutely adored it, but I hesitate to issue a full on, unreserved recommendation: there are some who will find the film's endless quirks and eccentricities maddening. Those looking for a traditional three act narrative may also be left wanting. But that's not what Holy Motors is about, and actually provides a surprisingly coherent, engaging narrative even though it predominantly consists of proudly nonsensical tangents. While some viewers will surely be left cold, I do urge anyone with a passing interest in the cinematic form to give two hours of their time to this wildly inventive and insanely adventurous film. Holy Motors is a lot of things, and will mean a lot of different things to different people. One thing is for sure: it's never less than fascinating. And for many it will prove to be utterly captivating. This is a very special film indeed.

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