I started a joke – Holy Motors review

Holy MotorsStarring Denis LavantEdith Scob, and Kylie Minogue. Directed by Leos Carax. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

In a similar fashion to Synecdoche, New York and Inception, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors seeks to highlight the incredible and ridiculous efforts taken by artists (and particularly filmmakers) to replicate reality, and how it’s ultimately an impossible feat. However, if they can at least occasionally and temporarily cut to the core of what it means to be human, convey heartfelt meaning, and inspire profound reflection, we’ll happily ignore the outrageous bells and whistles that are required in the process. You could watch a movie and point out the plot holes, or consider the private lives of the stars, or wonder just how the technological wizards managed to create such audacious special effects behind the scenes. Carax might even be daring us to get distracted and fixate on those things. Holy Motors quite literally takes us through the looking glass, but its most magical achievement is fooling us into forgiving and forgetting the fakery of it all.

If you want to strip away and ignore the lush ambiguity (which I don’t advise, although here we are…), Holy Motors tells of a time in which people only want to see “the real world” reflected on screen, and they don’t want to spot any electronic necessities like cameras, lest the “realness” be spoiled. Our protagonist, Monsieur Oscar (a truly transformative Denis Lavant), travels around Paris in a variety of guises, interacting with people and, we assume, performing for an unseen audience. Or, is the audience those he interacts with? Some of them – including, late in the film, Kylie Minogue – are actors too. Are we his audience? These are questions the increasingly exhausted Oscar doesn’t want to consider. He just wants to get home to his wife and family, whomever they may be.

Holy Motors doesn’t follow as linear a path as that synopsis might suggest, with Oscar being escorted around town in a limousine cum dressing room by a similarly mysterious chauffeur (Edith Scob). It’s more like a series of vignettes that recall some of cinema’s (and especially art house cinema’s) favourite tropes. Oscar’s first gig on a very long day is to pose as a crippled old bag lady in the middle of the town center. Then, he’s off to a motion capture studio where he exhibits impressive ninja-skills and simulates sex with a contorting dragon-woman. He dresses as a disgusting little leprechaun that eats flowers, bites fingers, and absconds with a model (a game Eva Mendes) to his underground lair. Just when we begin to suspect Carax is attempting to out-gun the audience in a game of “Guess The Bizarre Non-Sequitur,” he delivers a series of tender sequences in which Oscar picks up his shy “daughter” from a party, and then portrays an old man on his deathbed. There are others. You won’t see them coming.

I don’t know if there’s a metaphorical or literal connection between these disparate storylines, besides Oscar’s lead role in each. They each represent a different type of movie: action, comedy, romance, tragedy, etc. The extreme extent to which Oscar must mutate himself with makeup and commit wholeheartedly to each new character, just for a few moments of fabricated truth, seems to be the only connective tissue. He never phones it in, never questions his involvement. His allegiance lies with us, the viewer. So too does Carax’s. He’s putting on one hell of a production for our pleasure. Maybe Holy Motors is just one big prank; a series of disconnected practical jokes and weird digressions and erect penises, crafted with the intention of making us giggle, frown confusedly, dissect for meaning, or nod smugly while thinking “I’m the only person who really gets this.” Perhaps. The film is still littered with legitimately compelling and emotionally resonant moments. If it is a joke, it’s a worthwhile one to be subjected to.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Holy Motors arrives in Australian cinemas August 23, 2012.

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