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Holy Motors Review: Gloriously, Unapologetically Gary-Busey Batsh*t

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 24, 2012 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 24, 2012 |

You have never seen a film remotely like Holy Motors. In its gloriously, unapologetically batshit-crazy story and style, it is like a UFO in the competition here at Cannes, flying among normal aeroplanes. Watching it feels like listening to the ramblings of a lunatic and thinking to yourself, “Is he a prophet in our own times, or is he just completely insane?” I cannot overstate how mental this picture is, and will therefore state it several times throughout this review; I am still reeling from the screening, nearly 24 hours ago. It elicited gasps from the audience last night, as well as giggles at its preposterousness. In his refusal to deny himself any extravagance whatsoever, Carax makes Baz Luhrmann look like John Cassavetes.

OK, so this is the bit where I would usually summarise the story. May God himself give me the fortitude to make it through this section. Denis Lavant plays “Monsieur Oscar,” a man who gets driven around Paris in a white limousine for nine ‘appointments’ over the course of one day; this appears to be his job. Phew. That bit went fine. Moving on. In the limousine, Monsieur Oscar has a mirror, costumes and make-up, and a list giving him details on each appointment. His first appointment finds him dragging up to play the part of an old beggar lady on a bridge. For his second appointment, he puts on a black skin-tight latex outfit and is required to go to a studio and do dance moves in front of a performance-capture screen that translates his motions into those of an animated character; he is soon joined by a woman with whom he dances an elaborate contortion dance, which creates a scene of beasts penetrating each other on the screen. For his third appointment, he dresses up as a freak in a green outfit, who runs through a cemetery whose gravestones bear website addresses instead of names, all the while eating flowers he steals from the graves, and arrives at a photo-shoot where he kidnaps Eva Mendes and drags her back to a lair where (amongst other things) he makes her wear a gold hijab. Following this “mission,” he returns to the limousine and continues his other appointments of the day, all more ludicrous and bizarre than the other.

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So that’s roughly the gist of the film: man goes around Paris taking various guises, all of which are ridiculous but played seriously, with great conviction. Amongst the other roles he plays throughout the day are a hitman, a father driving his daughter home from her first party, and a dying old man. None of this begins to explain the craziness of this film, which also features a family of monkeys, talking cars and, as all self-respecting films should have, an accordion interlude halfway through. The accordion interlude, set in a church, is introduced with this memorable countdown instead of the usual one-two-one-two-three-four: “Three, Twelve, Shit!”

That isn’t the most preposterous line in the film.

Though the film’s greatness has already been overstated by critics anxious to see in its lunacy the visionary work of a genius — as I say, it really is profoundly ludicrous throughout, and will make you laugh and laugh and laugh — it is true that it does have a kind of crazed brilliance. In his story of a man acting roles in our midst, with apparently no-one watching, Carax appears to be lamenting the death of performance, and of art. The whole film can be seen as a kind of re-statement of the line from Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Carax makes a case for art for art’s sake, for performance delivered for the sheer heck of it; he finds beauty and surprise everywhere.

The film also manages to deliver several poignant moments including, unexpectedly, a wondrous scene where Monsieur Oscar is re-united with his old lover, played by Kylie Minogue, inside a deserted department store. She herself is on a mission, due to play the part of an air hostess later that night. As they walk through the store, Minogue sings a song about loss, featuring the line “What happened to the people we were?”, or something like that; it’s a pretty dumb song and a completely weird moment in a film that is not a musical - but Minogue sings it well, acts her part with belief, and the scene takes on a grandeur and melancholy that are palpable. Throughout the film, in fact, an obsession with death is revisited: with Lavant possibly acting as his alter ego, Carax shows a fidgety fear of death and a sense of love and death’s interconnection. Relationships are fleeting; death settles everything.

I’m dying to reveal so many other insane moments from this film whose twists and turns are not unpredictable so much as brain-melting. I wish you could see how hard I’m holding back from telling you about the final scene, which is so stupid and hilarious, yet also sort of philosophical; what torture it is not to tell you too much about the monkeys and the way Carax uses them; how jumpy I am at the thought of Monsieur Oscar’s limousine driver and the way the film concludes her storyline.

Holy Motors fully deserves to become a cult classic, and I hope that as many people as possible will run out to watch it, be baffled and infuriated and delighted by it, and scream about it on the telephone to friends, with tears of laughter running down their cheeks, revelling in its berserk brilliance.