Drawing ecstatic praise and derisive howls with polite bafflement somewhere in between, Leos Carax’s determinedly bizarre film has beguiled and alienated audiences and it’s a rich and complex film that deserves a second look.
Lavant is Monsieur Oscar, a man who is shuttled to “appointments” in his limousine, applying his own make-up and prosthetics to emerge as a different character at each stop. It’s not until roughly halfway through that Oscar growls the central message: it’s about the beauty of the act. It doesn’t matter who’s watching.
The film is structured so that the more outlandish segments are presented first in a flurry of very funny oddness before building towards more emotional and tragic scenes (after an exhilarating accordion-led musical number, obviously). So after fingers being bitten off and mo-capped fornicating demons, we have a deathbed reconiciliation and a genuinely moving musical segment between Oscar and a fellow performer played by Kylie Minogue.
Carax is determined not to settle on any emotional tone, undermining any sincerity by reminding us that it’s all a show as Oscar hurries to get to another appointment. But the reminder that it is the act itself that has value is one that resonates through even the most ridiculous moments.
The absurd has as much value as the po-faced, and the lunatics are as important as the grieving. The film is driven by a stunning performance from Carax veteran Lavant and a moving turn from Scob (Eyes Without a Face) as his devoted driver. Mendes is impressively game as a near-wordless kidnapped model, and Kylie’s surprisingly effective.
It’s not surprising that the film has detractors. It’s episodic, self-indulgent and it is often weird for weirdness’ sake. But that’s kind of the point. It’s beguiling and it resonates long after it’s over. Carax has often stated that he does not consider himself a cinephile but Holy Motors is, at its best, a potent reminder of the joy and power of film.