Some movies can instantly grip our attention even though they do not explain a lot about themselves. I cannot explain well the logics or motives behind its very odd premise, but I can definitely assure you that Leos Carax’s comeback film “Holy Motors” is a dazzling cinematic ride you cannot forget easily. It is a weird but compelling experience, and I willingly went with it as it kept providing something to behold and admire through one ‘mundane’ workday of its lonely hero.
In the opening scene, we see a guy waking up at some motel room. He opens a hidden door in the wall with a key transformed from one of his fingers, and he soon finds himself walking into a quiet movie theater full of the audiences passively staring at the screen. We see a baby walking on the aisle, and then we see a baby replaced by a dog in the next shot. Considering that movie theater is a place for collective dream, I guess this place is a sort of dreamland: are the audiences really watching something or are they waiting for something to watch and dream?
Anyway, the movie moves its focus to Monsieur Oscar(Denis Levant), whose schedule on this day is booked with no less than nine appointments. In the morning, he appears as a middle-aged business man who lives in a big modern house with his family. When he goes for work, the white limousine driven by a middle-aged woman Céline(Édith Scob) is ready to take him to the appointed places, and the files for instructions are also prepared for him in the limousine.
This is quite an interesting limousine, by the way. The space inside the vehicle is far wider and bigger than it looks from the outside, and this space looks more like an actor’s dressing room filled props and tools. As Céline drives around the streets of Paris, Oscar carefully prepares for each of his appointments in the schedule with make-ups and costumes, and he is usually on time as instructed.
The purpose behind his works remains vague even in the end, but we come to accept that he transforms himself to the various characters assigned to him and gives the performances as demanded(it is implied through the conversation at one point that the camera is somewhere near him to shoot his performances for… I don’t know). First, he plays an old female beggar on the street for a while, and then he is swiftly taken to his next assignment involving special effects. He walks into a big, empty studio while wearing tights for motion capture performance, and he alone goes through the series of rapid physical motions as being surrounded by flashy laser lights and computer graphics. He even runs on a treadmill with a machine gun in his hand in front of a big screen, and he is later joined by another performer for their erotic duo performance which is humorously rendered into CGI images.
His work goes on, and I particularly enjoyed watching Levant reprise his role from the segment directed by Carax in the omnibus film “Tokyo!”(2008). In that segment, Levant played a repulsive and aggressive human beast named Merde(it means ‘shit’ in French, by the way), who talked in gibberish while doing freakish and vicious things whenever he came out of the sewer system in Tokyo. Merde shocks the citizens of Paris with equal viciousness here in the movie; as usual, he suddenly appears from the underground and frightens the people unfortunately on his way. When he storms into a commercial shooting site in the park, he seems to be attracted to a beautiful model played by Eva Mendes, and what will happen between the beauty and the beast at the end of this part is another droll irreverent fun you must see for yourself.
The movie keeps going on in its own baffling way, and it is constantly fun to watch. This is Leos Carax’ first feature film since “Polar X”(1999), and it clearly shows that he had lots of fun and joy while making it. Besides the bizarre circumstances themselves, there are also small funny touches throughout the movie including the tombstones inscribed with Internet homepage addresses instead of names. The movie also slyly implies that there are other people in the city who go through various performances like Oscar. I wonder – are they manufacturing the stereotype performances like plant workers making products?
Amidst these fascinating sights, the marvelous multi-faceted performance by Denis Levant holds the center as the emotional anchor of the movie. We do not get to know a lot about Oscar except his performances(we are not even sure about whether Oscar is his real name), but his professional diligence gradually reveals the melancholy and exhaustion buried behind it. During one sequence, he looks really sincere and concerned when he is with his ‘daughter’, but it is just another work to perform in his daily life, and he remains as lonely as he has been despite the caring assistance from Céline.
Later in the story, he encounters a female fellow worker he knows, and he and she have some private time in an empty abandoned theater. They share their exhausted feelings due to their work, but their scene is quickly switched to the musical mode, and Australian singer Kylie Minogue is poignant during her singing scene which ends on a ‘tragic’ note.
When I watched “Holy Motors” at first, I described it as “a good case of all style and no substances”. I still think it is a stylish exercise in genres, but the movie is very engrossing none the less, and Carax and Levant presents us a lot more compelling ride than David Cronenberg’s intriguing but tedious film “Cosmopolitan”(2012), which was also about the hero who moved around the city a lot in his big limousine like Oscar.
While another day is being finished for our tired hero, the movie is imbued with a certain sense of melancholy and desperation – and we come to sense that his daily life has been wholly consisting of his performances from the beginning to the end. Around its finale in which he arrives at his ‘home’, it came to my mind that some really talented actors like Marlon Brando could not get away from acting throughout their whole lives. No wonder they were mostly unhappy people.