Movie Review, ok FILM Review: “Holy Motors”

ImageA film, a famous wag – OK, it was a comic strip character – once said is “a movie we don’t quite understand.”

Thus we come to “Holy Motors,” a trippy celebration of cinema history and an episodic series of bizarre, sometimes comic/ sometimes touching/ often angelic interludes and inside jokes from the filmmaker – Leos Carax. It is, most self-consciously, a “film” above all else. Not a movie.

Framed within the image of an audience watching, mesmerized by the flickering 19th century footage of a nude strong man demonstrating the “lifelike” potential of this new invention – cinema – Carax presents a willfully, maddeningly obscure collection of episodes that hint at a kind of “It’s a Wonderful Life” series of literal and symbolic visitations to the dead or about to die.

A mysterious businessman, Mr. Oscar — played by Denis Lavant, the former circus acrobat whom Carax turned into something of a star with his 1991 film “The Lovers on the Bridge” — says good-bye to his kids, steps into his stretch white Lincoln limo (escorted by body guards in a BMW) and sets out for a day of Paris “appointments.” Those entail him changing clothes and disguises, time and again, as his on-task limo driver (French screen veteran Edith Scob from 1960’s “Eyes Without a Face”) drives him to each meeting in that day’s dossier.

He dons a red mask covered in barbed wire and attempts to assassinate a banker (also played by Levant). He takes on the clothes and stooped walk of a poor old homeless woman – “Nobody loves me, but I’m alive,” she/he thinks in an interior monologue.

Oscar dons fake nails, a red beard and hair and becomes a sewer troll, wandering beneath the streets (where processions of the walking dead – dead-eyed Parisians, pass him with their shopping carts) only to emerge in the tourist trap Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jim Morrison, among others are buried. The tombstones no longer have names, but jokey exhortations to “visit my site at www…”

That’s where the troll, named Merde (a character from an earlier Carax film), kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot, the photographer burbling “Beauty, beauty beauty” at her all the way.


Oscar puts on a motion capture suit and acts out the “future of cinema,” including graphic simulated sex with a blonde contortionist.

And so on. Little is clear and nothing is explained.

Lavant is quite the chameleon here, occasionally earning empathy, amusement or revulsion. It’s a tour de force turn, self-evidently so. Put Jim Carrey in this role and we’d call it “showing off.” Subtitle it in French and actor and director earn the benefit of the barely coherent doubt.

There are pauses for music – Oscar leads an orchestra of accordionists, Eva Mendes and a wistful Kylie Minogue (as a fellow limo-riding “performer”) sing.

The quixotic Carax (“Pola X,” “The Lovers on the Bridge”) doesn’t work much, and seems to be making a commentary on the nature of the passive act of watching, of the changing nature of cinema from the magically organic to the mechanically digital. Read a dozen reviews of “Holy Motors” and you’ll mostly get a dozen people scrambling not to admit that they don’t quite get it.

But think “It’s a Wonderful Life,” listen for Minogue singing “Who were we when we were who were we?” and tumble into the tracking shots, the wild transformations of the singularly homely Levant into assorted grotesque murderers, a dying old man gently scolding a young woman who is condemned “to be you,” and weary angels and try to go with it. It may not change your life or the cinema as we know it, but as indulgent baubles and commentaries on the nature of watching and being watched over (by a filmmaker, or an angel) go, “Holy Motors” hits on enough cylinders to puzzle over for days afterwards.

MPAA Rating: Unrated, with graphic violent, nudity

Cast: Denis Lavant, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, Edith Scob

Credits: Written and directed by Leos Carax. An Indomina/Wild Bunch release.

Running time:1:54

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Movie Review, ok FILM Review: “Holy Motors”

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  3. Mrs. Smith says:

    What a horrible review, at least you could learn some punctuation and basic redaction. And if you don´t understand it, doesn´t mean it lacks anything, go watch crappy Hollywood comedies, maybe you will get it then. Your statement about reviewers puzzled about it is stupid! I have read 2 who got it clearly, this is no David Lynch´s unending enigmas, there is a lot of concrete stuff here. Instead of reviewing film you should be making the popcorn at the theater, that´s easier and don´t require a lot of thinking which seems to be your weak point…

    • It’s an inside baseball movie from a filmmaker who expects a lot of dots to be connected to his earlier work. I’ve seen some of that earlier work, and found much of it as forgettable and opaque as this. He may be an “artiste,” but his job is to get outside of his own head long enough to make his point. I have yet to read a review that truly “got it,” and I know the LA Critics honored it. But they were just pretending they saw the Emperor’s New Clothes. Like you. I see upwards of 500 films a year, and if I didn’t get it, that’s the filmmaker’s doing.
      And re: “stupid,” and “punctuation?” Seriously? Get bent.

  4. Scott says:

    Personally I thought this was a helpful review. Your blend of light wit and frankness is what made me click through from Rotten Tomatoes; the critic’s profile, above right, holds the same elements. As an editor and lit teacher (even creative writing teacher and short story award winner in the past) I’m analytically competent enough to review films, and so I’ve considered it. But at university I somehow lost any journalistic brevity and crispness such as you have. I don’t seem to have the ability to transpose humour (such as I’m able to put into nonfictional dialogue or script) over to nonfiction writing. It’s always too dense, dry, and wordy whenever I feel I’m communicating exactly what I mean. Any tips for cultivating your talent or would you just declare it an innate personality thing?

    • Erik says:

      It sounds like you’ve got a bunch of things you want to work on: density, wordiness, opacity, difficulty with humor.

      But that’s not a reason not to write, it’s a reason *to* write. How else are you going to work through your challenges except sitting down and practicing? The only difference between a writer and an aspiring writer is whether they sit down and do it every day.

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