Watching "Holy Motors" is to cheer (or jeer) that the cinema of Dada circa 1920 thru 2012 is alive again. Duchamp, Man Ray, or Rene Clair had never seen such things, or maybe they did.
This is Leos Carax's fourth main feature (The Lovers on The Bridge) who is fond of eccentric plots with imagery that recalls the psychedelic director Alejandro Jodorowski (El Topo). "Holy Motors" has a sweep and a slickness to it. With its detached urban flavor, it recalls Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis," if Eric Packer's limo had been waxed with hallucinogens.
At the start of "Holy Motors, we have Oscar (Denis Lavant) who is sleeping, I assume, in a dingy motel with a dog. After several minutes, the forest-patterned wallpaper dissolves to reveal Oscar with a screwdriver for a finger entering a crowded cinema. There is a baby, followed by a scary growling dog.
Instantly we are in Paris, with Oscar in a stretched white limo. He is on the phone with a file in front of him. Quickly the limo turns into a makeup room and Oscar sets to work, applying makeup and masks. He dons a black skin suit and enters a warehouse which is equipped with lasers. He has an Uzi type gun. Is Oscar a video game actor or an assassin?
What follows is one of the more poetic passages of the film, with Oscar writhing in video ecstasy as he turns into a reptilian sex creature who becomes fused to a red-leathered female counterpart. Another file is placed in Oscar's seat and he turns into a gluttonous and violent, grimy leprechaun. He strips naked and gorily upsets a photo shoot with the beautiful Eva Mendes. Oscar savagely gobbles flowers and bites a secretary's finger clean off. He ransacks a cemetery. In one fine touch, the gravestones read "Visit My Website".
The imagery is stirring and although I'm not quite sure what the point is, it's never boring. In tone and spirit much of the sequences echo the art films of Matthew Barney.
Oscar drives on, barely communicating to the chauffeur, the Hitchcockian blonde Celine. (Edith Schob) and getting increasingly ill, the more he impersonates others. With every new character, Oscar takes nothing with him. Like the wallpaper in the cinema, he is flat. For the moment, people know him, but then he vanishes becoming little more than tinsel in a Parisian sky.
There are many vivid touches in keeping with its iconoclastic tone, not least of which is a jubilant accordion disco number which runs throughout a gothic cathedral.
At one point, we think that Oscar is returning home to his wife in a futurist apartment ala "2001". Our man Oscar is apparently married to a chimpanzee and they have two chimp offspring. Juxtaposed against a modernist and spacey environment, this is both haunting and silly, as is the last scene with the limos actually talking to each other which feels as goofy as Disney.
What does it mean? Perhaps it doesn't matter. It is enough to go ahead and enjoy or just absorb "Holy Motors" for its mania. I don't think the ghost of Antonin Artaud will utter a peep.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org