Four years ago avant garde filmmaker Leos Carax contributed his unique storytelling to the anthology picture Tokyo! and told of a strange, seemingly mythical-esque humanoid resembling that of a leprechaun just released from an extended stay in solitary confinement at Shawshank. Rising from random manholes and fixated up to hovering crows he proceeds to walk confidently through the streets of Tokyo, grabbing everything that can be bitten into and trotting over patrons because they were unfortunately on his way to the next manhole he wished to crawl back into. If Godzilla were a 5’4” red-head he’d act a lot like this.
This character again appears in Carax’s new picture Holy Motors, only the creature doesn’t torture the patrons of Tokyo he appears on the streets of London; and just before he kidnaps Eva Mendes to take her down with him into the sewers and treat her like a lady (minus licking her armpit with a blood-stained tongue and eating her hair; but what gentleman wouldn’t do that?) he performs some highly acrobatic motion-capture for game developers only just after he turned himself into an old hunchbacked homeless woman asking for change on the side of the road. He does something else before that as well. He also does many things after as many different personalities.
That creature (called Merde in the credits and in Tokyo!) is just one of twelve characters inhabited by a very gifted actor named Denis Lavant. Holy Motors, for whatever you choose to take from it after viewing, is a true showcase for Lavant to display a wide range of how one becomes someone else, both physically and emotionally when taking on the life of another person for whatever reason they choose to and how forever long they do it. Lavant’s true character name in Motors is Monsieur Oscar, a man who is given assignments to be at a given place and be a given personality to perform a given task.
Riding in the back of a limousine with an ample supply of makeup and costumes from one assignment to the next is what Oscar does for a living; and the way the picture is constructed to follow Oscar around for a full day of tasks and the essence of each assignment to be a form of performance art creates a thought conflict on the viewer to determine how much of the picture was a planned performance by Monsieur Oscar, or what was a genuine moment of honesty in the life of Monsieur Oscar. As I think back it could be, or is probably both.
To call Holy Motors unique would be an understatement, but its uniqueness is not cold nor off-putting. Monsieur Oscar is an enigma but for all that we don’t know about him we never seem to be at arm’s length from him. The first moment we get an idea of his home life he picks up his young daughter from a house party and in their parting we think he may be a detestable human being, only to rethink whether or not what was just seen was Monsieur Oscar and his actual daughter, or if it was just another person assigned for him to be and do what he was assigned to do.
Watching Lavant inhabit his many characters is truly fascinating. I would liken it to seeing Laura Dern’s portrayal in Inland Empire where the actress plays an actress being drug through a cavalcade of Lynchian disjointedness. I always considered that picture to be a representation of what it must be like for an actor to go from role to role and go from scene 30 back to scene 2 because shooting schedules require it. That seems to reflect a lot of the same with Holy Motors. The segment in which he is called to perform motion capture is an astonishing display in both his capabilities as an athlete as well as a mesmerizing visual to see the performance transition from a martial arts exhibition that would make Ray Park proud, to a heavily armed running soldier, then on to a snake-like erotica with another motion-capture artist; and all the while seeing only the lit ping pong balls on the suit in a mostly dark room.
I wouldn’t say I know what Holy Motors is about, but I am entertained in my confusion and enthralled to ponder on it more and watch it again.
The Upside: Exceptional performance(s) from Denis Lavant and a unique story that has a focus despite being mysterious with its intentions.
The Downside: Some truly obscure injections that can take you out of the picture momentarily and think more about how strange a particular element was, even in a film as obscure as this is.
On The Side: Carax stated that if Lavant had not wanted the role he would have offered the part to Lon Chaney or Chaplin. Possibly Peter Lorre or famed French actor of the early 20th century Michael Simon. You can blame Lavant for not being able to see any of those men on screen anymore.