There is a certain type of film so caught up in a sense of its own importance, that it becomes the perfect embodiment of the very thing it claims it is trying to avoid – conformity. Many (though not all) independent films are in danger of falling within this unfortunate area as, unfettered by the constraints of a big studio, their efforts at individualism fail, often resulting in self-conscious, cliché-ridden attempts at ‘meaningfulness’. There are some films however which avoid these pitfalls by genuinely not caring what anyone thinks (which their aspiring cohorts clearly do despite protestations to the contrary). Director Leos Carax’s freak fantasy Holy Motors, starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, is one such film.
Following twenty-four hours in the bizarre existence of the deviant Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) and his trusty Girl Friday, Céline (Scob), this indefinable exercise in weirdness charts the demise of an ensemble of disparate characters who have the misfortune of crossing his path.
The unfettered approach of Holy Motors – the fact that you literally don’t know what to expect next – is the film’s strength. Involving a series of events centred around Oscar – including everything from one that sees him disguised as a hunchbacked woman who spends her days begging on the streets of Paris, to another in which he has an erotically charged encounter with a nymph-like dancer, their bodies morphing into animated dragonlike creatures who copulate amidst a psychedelic landscape – this is a film which manages to avoid pigeonholing by means of its shocking and grotesque wittiness.
The real magic of the film however, and what saves it from being a purely egotistical trip of self-expression for Carax, is not just the sheer unexpectedness of events but also the way in which nothing is actually explained. Everything about Oscar and those who meet him during the space of the day over which the film is set, is left to the viewer’s imagination with little or no explanation given to the series of increasingly violent and freakish set-pieces which unfold on the screen. Like a constantly evolving animated painting, the film is totally open to the personal interpretation of the individual and will likely mean something different to whoever’s watching it.
Again, as with a painting, some aspects of the film (actors, scenes and locations) stand out, whilst others simply meld into the background. Minogue, after Lavant, is undoubtedly the main attraction, dominating her segment with the air of vulnerable fragility which has added to the longevity and allure of her career as both a singer and an actress. Inevitably she is given the opportunity to sing – though her ballad-like song is so heartfelt, fitting perfectly with the film’s overall scheme, that any fear of her performance overpowering her storyline’s poignancy is minimal. Equally memorable, though for different reasons, is the appearance of sultry Cuban-American seductress Mendes. With little if anything to say or do other than look gorgeous in a Greek goddess-like ensemble, she conveys more feeling in a single smouldering glance than most actresses could manage in a barrage of verbose dialogue – her initial appearance during a surreal fashion shoot set in a gothic graveyard is one of the film’s most disarming and striking images.
Beyond the central performances, it is the film’s locations and scenarios which haunt the memory after the film ends. Making the best use of Paris’ iconic architecture as well as its urban sprawl, the settings add to an ambiance of bohemian decay which pervades all aspects of the production including, perhaps most importantly, those of Oscar’s moody introspectiveness interjected with apparently random acts of visceral violence.
Holy Motors finishes as ambiguously as it starts. A final twist gives a possible explanation as to the characters who are the true force behind all that has happened during the preceding one hundred and ten minutes, whilst the subtlety of unspoken messages, which has been a theme throughout the film, is further enforced with a clever homage to Georges Franju’s cult horror Eyes Without a Face (1960) which made a star of Scob early in her career.
Though Holy Motors may not to be to everyone’s taste, it highlights the point that only when more filmmakers embrace Carax’s uninhibited approach, might a truly independent alternative to mainstream cinema emerge.
The Blu-ray disc of Holy Motors, featuring extras including outtake scenes and a festival Q&A with Leos Carax, was released in the UK on February 4, 2013.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.