Welcome to the strange and deranged world of Holy Motors.
After its glorious reception at this year’s Cannes festival, Leos Carax’s long awaited Holy Motors is finally released in UK cinemas. To some the film is nothing more than gratuitous nonsense full of meaningless, non-intellectual visual shenanigans. To others it is one of the most delightful (if that is the term to use for a film that contains sex, science fiction, assassination and crazy antics with monkeys, cars, celebrities and drugs) films of the year that makes you re-engage with cinema not only as an art form, but a purposeful endeavour that also entertains.
M. Oscar (Denis Lavant) spends his day being driven through Paris in a grand limousine and is given instructions for his next job, along with all the props he needs, on board. He has been collected from his apparent abode outside the city (where the forest is a joyful wilderness) by Céline (Edith Scob) who drives him to his next appointment, keeping to a tight schedule. M. Oscar must become different personalities whether they be male, female or even computer imagery to fulfil the requirements demanded of him.
It almost goes without saying that the language of cinema requires its viewers to actively participate (albeit subconsciously most of the time) in the understanding and interpretation of a film, but it is highly unlikely that the combination of themes, ideas and characterisation depicted in Holy Motors will be familiar in any other cinematic context. The film shuns traditional narrative form but somehow makes sense internally, all the elements coming together for M. Oscar, whether they be in the realm of science, culture or sexual and spiritual personal revelation. His roles range from the idiosyncratic to the mundane. He satiates his desires – in very different ways – with Kay M (Eva Mendes) and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) but is also required to become an assassin (Lavant plays both Le tueur and Le tué). He briefly becomes a beggar woman, a businessman and the father of a teenager. When he finally returns home, he is greeted by a family of monkeys. The scenes on show are varied to say the least, with occasionally graphic sex and violence juxtaposed alongside cultural commercialism, celebrity exposure and, of course, the titular cars which provide both the spiritual aspects of the film (hence the Holy) and also the ‘narrative’ drive (the journey of the motor). There is even a scene featuring possibly the finest multiple accordion-playing orchestral joy you are likely to encounter.
‘The beauty of the act’ or ‘In the eye of the beholder’? Much has been made of Holy Motors deriving its sources from a wide heritage of cinematic history. Whether this is deliberate or coincidental, the overall effect is striking for its cinephilic joie de vivre or its new revelations, depending on your expectations and familiarity with films of an earlier age. There are many elements that look to cinema’s pioneering exploits into the world of visual and narrative development, including sequences that recall the surrealism of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). Certainly the history of cinema in its many forms can be found here, from Louis Feuillade to Luis Buñuel and beyond. But despite the clear enthusiasm for all things cinematic, Holy Motors is by no means a series of glorified cover-versions but rather a film that is entirely its own.
Visually astonishing, inventive and constantly engaging, this is a film that keeps its audience fully immersed in the bizarre and fascinating world of M. Oscar. Holy Motors may not be to everyone’s taste (it is essential viewing if only to decide that you don’t like it) but it is undoubtedly a unique experience that – for these reviewers – is a contender for film of the year.