There is a theory that Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is structured, quite schematically, like Dante’s Inferno. The idea is that this three hour film can be broken down into nine significant episodes, one for each of the layers of Hell. It doesn’t really work without ignoring some sequences and fudging the math, but no matter. Complicated and almost conspiratorial interpretations of movies will always abound; one need look no further than Shining conspiracy documentary Room 237, also playing this installment of the New York Film Festival.
Yet sometimes a movie comes along that seems to dare the audience to come up with intricate analyses, to start cranking away even before the credits have rolled. Intentionally or otherwise, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is one of those challenges.
This complex work of French absurdity invokes the birth and life of cinema from its first moments. Carax clips early motion studies of the male physique, grounding things in the primordial days of the technology. He then takes his camera into a movie theater, staring at the audience from the perspective of the screen and moving about the space, occasionally following the inexplicable large dogs that wander the aisles. It seems to be setting us up for something, but this early on in the film it is impossible to know what. It is a prelude which, if at all explainable, must be seen a second time to work out.
From there the exceedingly loose narrative begins. The protagonist is Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who spends his day being driven around Paris in a white limousine by his tall, cool and collected chauffeur, Céline (Edith Scob). It slowly becomes apparent that his occupation is an atypical form of impersonation. The limo is equipped with a staggering collection of outfits, wigs and prosthetic faces to be used in his performances. Yet for whom is he performing? That is never made clear. He becomes an aged gypsy beggar-woman, a gangster, a dying old man, a boring middle-aged father, even a troll. He is credited on iMDB with eleven different roles. Each of these transformations takes the form of a discreet episode, clearly separated from the others in the flow of the film.
The structure of Holy Motors, therefore, could be charted and mapped in a way that wouldn’t work for a looser film like La Dolce Vita. One gets preoccupied with the number and order of episodes, trying to find significance in a film that rarely gives the audience any help. When Oscar first gets into the car with Céline she tells him that he has nine appointments that day. Which of the sequences count as appointments, and should some be considered separately? There’s a bit at the end when he spends time with another actor for this unknown agency, played by Kylie Minogue. Is that somehow also a performance?
This kind of circular logic can go on and on. Carax somehow manages to set his audience at sea while also presenting a regulated and orderly series of events. The film is incredibly mystifying and obtuse, yet seems to insist that on the edge of the screenplay there is a solution. If one pays close attention, that answer might be found in the representation of cinema itself. Each of the episodes might be a comment on a different element of the art form, from the shock and gore of the troll sequence to a 3D motion-capture scene early on. Minogue even gets a chance to sing, shot with echoes of the over-the-top style of Old Hollywood musicals.
To help matters, there are a few moments that drive this point home. Oscar gets a chance to talk to his boss and uses it as an opportunity to complain about how the business has changed. Impersonators, he grips, used to be able to see the big cameras which were filming them. Now there is nothing to see. It seems like a nostalgic comment, bemoaning the advent of digital cinema. The conclusion of the film even features machines complaining about their coming obsolescence. Yet Holy Motors itself is digital, and Carax takes advantage of that to occasionally warp and pixelate his images.
In the end, this enigmatic work of art is probably nowhere near as graphable as its tightly arranged structure suggests. Oscillating between its evocation of the earliest days of cinema and its ambiguous relationship with the newest of technologies, Holy Motors might very well be undecided itself. It seems more likely that this is an open ended meditation than any sort of complicated yet definitive statement on the life or death of the art form. Some will find that infuriating, others will see in it the greatest of meta-artistic statements. From the perspective of this critic, both of those reactions are probably equally correct.
The Upside: Oscar’s impersonation of a graveyard-dwelling troll might be the most surreal thing to happen in live action cinema this year, more so than The Paperboy.
The Downside: Minogue has much, much better material than the song she’s given to perform.
On the Side: In a press conference after a NYFF screening of the film, Carax insisted that Holy Motors is not about cinema.