Cannes Review: Leos Carax’s ‘Holy Motors’ Is (The Good Kind of) Bat-Shit Crazy

By  · Published on May 23rd, 2012

Cannes films have a tendency to provoke reaction, with selections chosen for their impact more often than any conventionally commercial appeal, and as a result, responses from those who attend tend to polarize. In that context, it is no surprise that Leos Carax’s weird and wonderful Holy Motors was chosen to screen In Competition, judging by the number of walk-outs and the final standing ovation.

The film follows Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), an inexplicable figure who is driven around Paris in a stretch limousine by his chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob), fulfilling “assignments” around the city. The angle is that Mr. Oscar is an actor, and his assignments are characters, each requiring precise and preposterous costumes as he seeks the ultimate performance, in front of invisible characters for an unknown audience.

As the film progresses, Mr. Oscar advances through his list of jobs – an old beggar woman, an assassin, a businessman, a father, a dying old man, a deranged, violent monster who eats flowers and kidnaps supermodels – committing himself entirely to the art of character. We are never afforded an insight to who he really is, how he came to be, or even whether there is any reality in any of the situations at all.

It could all be a dream, or the film could merely be an exercise in imagination, without convention restriction or any fidelity to the stifling influences of logic and reason. It is entertainment entirely on Carax’s terms, which is remarkably brave, and at times the film is hilarious, at others disgusting, but it is always bat-shit crazy.

Really, the film is no more than a Kafkaesque short story idea, stretched out into a high-high-concept film that is baffling, infuriating and brilliant in equal measure. It will undoubtedly pick up five star reviews, and the only restraint on this review comes from my own refusal to cast off the conventional entertainment gauge: it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying their popcorn when confronted with a naked man with an erection eating Eva Mendes’s hair.

But that is entirely the point: Holy Motors is designed to shock, to the point that it resists any temptation to explicate a message. We are supposed to simply accept that Mr. Oscar is an actor, employed by an unseen agency to complete deliriously deranged “appointments” for the benefit of unseen cameras. As such it is an ordeal, grabbing you behind the navel and pulling you into a world without borders, where the only rules are those dreamed up in the anti-conventional mind of the director.

In all conventional terms, Holy Motors is probably a failure: it is a deranged, experimental oddity, provocative to the extreme, and it defies all but surface explanation. But Denis Lavant’s performance shines as brilliant and Carax’s dedication to his nightmarish, occasionally impenetrable concept is admirable – just don’t expect to see it screening on the same bill as anything even remotely commercial.

Because it will take some serious balls for anyone to buy it for the American market, even with cameos from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Kudos must certainly go to Carax for being completely different though.

The Upside: The technical elements on show, including the acting are all very good. It’s just that the story is so self-consciously odd, that it’s hard to really appreciate them too much.

The Downside: After the first couple of “episodes” you don’t really need to say anymore. And provocation for the sake of it can eventually become sanitized.

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