Holy Motors (2012) – Who Were We?

“Surreal” is one of the most popular and misunderstood words at work in Britain today, often mis-used by footballers and reality TV show stars when grasping for adjectives to describe their experience.

X Factor winner James Arthur described his experience as surreal, while returning West Ham hero Joe Cole also felt his return to the club of his youth matched the description.  Assuming Cole’s contract signing wasn’t overseen by a dwarf talking backwards, or Nicole Scherzinger’s head didn’t turn into a lightbulb while singing him a lullaby, what they actually meant was the events were a bit surprising or unusual.

One thing genuinely surreal in 2012 was Leo Carax’s Holy Motors, a wilfully bizarre, gross, funny and melancholy headfuck that is likely to drive some regular cinema-goers to experiment with other examples of arthouse and avant garde cinema.

Ranking high in many critic’s lists of last year’s top films, Holy Motors may be the first example of a genuinely popular surreal film reaching large audiences, and will likely confound expectations.  Arthouse cinema is often perceived as aloof, pretensious and high-minded, and while certain aspects of Carax’s nutty odyssey meet those expectations, it also possesses an anarchic, mischevious sense of fun that makes it worth watching for watching’s sake.

The story, if you can call it that, charts a day in the life of the mysterious Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), chauffeured around Paris in the back of a white limousine to various assignments.  En route, he dons various disguises and costumes, and when he arrives at his destination, he plays out a series of outlandish scenarios.  It is not clear who the audience is meant to be, because no-one else seems to be watching, apart from us, the audience.

Oscar’s roles vary wildly, from an old woman begging, to a lycra-clad performer in a motion capture studio, a father collecting his daughter from a party, a sewer-dweller causing carnage on a photo shoot, or an assassin with his head wrapped in barbed wire.

Holy Motors - Motion Capture

The sequences are not connected, and the consequences of his actions have no repercussions once the scene is over – Oscar dies in the film several times, often at the hands of his own double – he just moves onto the next assignment and throws himself into the role.

What is it about?  Who knows.  One clue may come from the opening sequence, where a man, played by the director himself, wakes in a hotel room.  He approaches a wall, covered in wallpaper with a tree pattern.  He finds a keyhole, and using a finger that has turned into a key, opens a secret door that leads into a cinema.

The audience is asleep, which is many regular cinema goer’s ideal state at the thought of watching an avant-garde movie, and the director looks down on them while a scary black dog stalks the aisles.

The Director of Holy Motors has stated his intent – he plans to watch the audience as the audience watches his film.

Beyond that, it is up to the viewer to decide on possible meanings.  Some critics suggest it is a lament for the passing of physical experience in our digital age – headstones in a graveyard bear no names, just the invite “Visit my website”, and extremely physical motion capture fight scene and sex scene is converted into computer generated imagery.  Others focus on the tree wallpaper, and the familiar idiom, “can’t see the woods for the trees”.

I think another popular woods-related idea is more appropriate for this film.  Instead of: “If a tree falls in the woods and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

With Holy Motors, you could ask: “If an actor performs a scene and no-one is around to watch it, does it have a point?”

The scenes Oscar performs vary wildly in genre, from musical to horror, but stripped of the context of the rest of the film they might be part of, come across as almost nonsensical – only the viewer’s knowledge of the genre tropes gives it any sense.

It made me think of the golden records shot into space on the Voyager probe – the eventual recipients might play it back and think, “great!”, but without the context of human history and common experience, might also think, “but what the fuck was all that about?”

One thing you can say for certain is that Holy Motors is a movie about movies, and presenting the scenes in such a free association way causes you, the viewer, to think about the way you view movies.

You could also read Holy Motors as a sarcastic joke about how studios tend to cram any bankable movie star into as many roles as possible. One of the highest grossing actors of the past decade, Johnny Depp, for example, has portrayed a pirate, a writer, a poet, a reclusive chocolate factory owner, a gangster, a vampire, a gunslinging chameleon, and a Mad Hatter, among other things over the past ten years.  The lead roles in many Hollywood films are invariably filled by a combination of the five or six actors and actresses that are hot at the moment.

Critics also like to liken Holy Motors to Cosmopolis, presumably because it is also weird, full of ideas and feature a character riding round in the back of a limousine.  However, since Holy Motors is about Monsieur Oscar, and Monsieur Oscar is about acting in film, Holy Motors is actually closer in kin to Ben Stiller‘s Tropic Thunder.

(You can check out Video Krypt’s Tropic Thunder Review here – https://videokrypt.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/tropic-thunder-2008-get-some-again/)

Also a film about film, Tropic Thunder featured an Oscar winning performance by Robert Downey Jr as Kirk Lazarus, a five time Academy Award winner so “method” that he doesn’t break character until he’s done the commentary on the DVD.

A climactic scene shows Lazarus peeling back his characters until the real man appears before us.  Monsieur Oscar, when he is performing, occupies each role so completely it is impossible to tell which is the real man.

Since he starts his day leaving one house and finishes entering another, Holy Motors suggests that even when Oscar is not working, he is still portraying a role.  The only time Oscar doesn’t seem to be acting is in the limousine between jobs, and he is a tired and weary man.

Denis Lavant is astonishing as Monsieur Oscar.  Carax stated he would have liked to cast Lon Chaney or Charlie Chaplin in the role, but unfortunately they were dead.  Lavant fills in capably in a bravura performance of surprising subtly and thrilling physicality, and his deadpan, battered face resembles a cross between Buster Keaton and Bill Murray.

How did he not get an Oscar nomination, when Downey Jr took home the gong for a similar role?  It’s one of those crimes, and the academy voters are notoriously conservative – perhaps they were put off by prolonged, gratuitous exposure to Monsieur Lavant’s stiff cock in the film’s standout sequence, Monsieur Merde.

Holy Motors Msr Merde

Monsieur Merde, or Mr Shit, as we might call him in English, is a demented, feral sewer-dweller created for Carax’s segment in the 2008 anthology movie Tokyo!  In Holy Motors, Merde shambles out of a manhole and stomps across a graveyard, eating bouquets of flowers, and busts onto a film shoot, where he bites off someone’s fingers and abducts an impassive supermodel, played by Eva Mendes.

In a film full of nonsensical scenes, Monsieur Merde is by far the most nonsensical, but is also hilariously disgusting and brutal, and perfectly encapsulates Holy Motor‘s sense of anarchy and brio.

Holy Motors will baffle and frustrate as many people as it delights, but for a surrealist film, it is compulsively watchable, if only to see what the manic, brilliant Denis Lavant will get up to next.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 30/01/2013, in Comedy, Entertainment, Fantasy, Film, H, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I just read this in my local Chinese takeaway and actually laughed aloud! A very entertaining read. If only Nicole Scherzinger’s head would turn in to a lightbulb. She might actually shut the fuck up for once.

    • Hey man, thanks for the comments as always! You’re just about the only person who reads my shit these days, but I guess that’s my fault for letting Video Krypt fall off the table.

  2. The whole review seems surreal tbh-Hudsucker,Brazil,Hedwig,Naked lunch,Braindead-but the grandpa of surreal is simply Eraserhead. What the hell was that about man?

  3. Have you seen Eraserhead lee?

  4. I wasn’t able to enjoy it, I really need more story in my movies…

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