Film Review – Holy Motors
Holy Motors is an experiment in the bizarre, but in a good way. With experimental filmmaking, one goes in with different questions. Can the viewer follow what is happening? Does the message the director is trying to get across work in this style? Am I in the mood for something this different? The answers will be different for every viewer, obviously, but for me this film was one of the better examples of the genre.
In going into the plot, I cannot say with any real authority what happens. But here is what I do know. Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) spends the day being driven around town in a white limousine by his faithful chauffeur, Céline (Edith Scob), to perform “assignments.” All of these involve him dressing as someone else or maybe even just being himself, and performing stunts as simple as being an old woman begging or as difficult as murdering someone. Who he is and who is sending him on these tasks is never made clear, nor is why he is able to get away with any of it. The little we do learn is that Oscar has been doing this for a while for “love of the performance,” as he says, yet is also tired by the demands it creates on his life. Céline has also been doing this for a while, and is worried about what it is doing to Mr. Oscar. She is also devoted to the work, and as tired by the demands of it.
Each assignment is a small story or experience in itself, going from very mundane to the outright bizarre. This structure leaves for a continual sense of playing catch-up with what is going on with each experience. Still, each one is given more than enough time for the viewer to get a feel for what is happening, even if it is for a few seconds; it never feels overly fast or confusing. The audacity of what the filmmakers decide to throw at us can be quite amusing, being at one moment confusing, then causing laughing out loud.
This is not to say that the film’s structure is random. It is obvious that great detail went into the structure of what director Leos Carax shows us, and how he wants us to follow Mr. Oscar as he goes through his day. The progression, while bizarre, keeps the emotional journey of Mr. Oscar and Céline very real. We are given only tidbits about Mr. Oscar, and many that could mean nothing, considering how he moves from persona to persona. It is never clear what is real. What does come through is a sense of weariness for his work, yet with an obvious attachment, as with any job that consumes an individual. There are regrets and they can consume, but there is also the sense of duty that moves the characters. For Céline, there is even less information given, except her obvious worry and devotion to Mr. Oscar coming across in her looks and tone as she speaks to him through a monitor in the car.
Despite all this, in looking for a deeper message or ideas in the film, nothing was obvious. Maybe with repeat viewings more could be examined, but here and now it doesn’t jump out to me as something that needs to be examined or thought about on a deeper level. (That, and I have no real desire to go back and see if there is more to examine.) The filmmaker is unknown to me, so if there is more to this, I claim ignorance. Where the film’s merit is strongest is in his commitment to the world’s design. The “rules” of this world are never completely defined, but the concepts become clear enough that each assignment has its moment, and we move on with possibly a bit more information or just an interesting experience. We’re never completely lost. Even the bizarre moments that defy all logic do not take the viewer out of what they are watching completely. We can stay involved and invested in what is happening.
Seeing a movie step out of the traditional rules of filmmaking can be exciting. It shows what capabilities the medium has. Leos Carax is definitely someone who does not feel confined by traditional rules, yet he never goes so far as to alienate the viewer. He wants us to be able to follow Mr. Oscar’s day, but he also wants us to really pay attention.
Final Grade: B+