Holy Motors may be the oddest film of the past half a decade or so. It’s a bit like the collaboration between David Lynch and Terry Gilliam that never happened. Combine Lynch’s eerie surrealism with Gilliam’s knack for visuals and satirical wit, double the weirdness, and the result would be somewhat close to Holy Motors.
Directed by Leos Carax, Holy Motors is a dreamy and bizarre examination of society in Paris and the world in general. Carax’s intentions remained ambiguous to me at first, but after a while I grasped the meaning of Holy Motors. Holy Motors is the most decisive picture of 2012, probably even more so than The Master, but is also one of the year’s finest movies. Carax’s picture is thoroughly fascinating and wildly engaging movie, a mind blowing masterpiece.
Holy Motors’ story is crafted in a nonconventional and episodic fashion. The film begins with a man (played by Carax himself) opening a door in his room with his own finger and observing an audience watching a movie in a theater. This opening scene is breaking the fourth wall, as Carax himself observes our own reaction to the movie.
Holy Motors then transitions to Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who leaves his mansion and children to go to work. He enters a limousine driven by Celine (Edith Scob), who takes him around Paris to do many appointments. From there on out, Oscar puts on various convincing disguises (Carax shows the make-up process Oscar takes for each scene) and adopts numerous identities. He runs around the city, frightening and harming (both physically and mentally) other people.
My description of Holy Motors might make it sound like a sort of juvenile prank show, but it expands far more than that. Each episode comments not only on Oscar himself but others around him. He first dresses up as an elderly woman begging for money on the street. Then, he dons a motion capture suit and works a CGI figure.
The strangest episode occurs near the middle of Holy Motors. Oscar dresses up as a flower-eating leprechaun who runs down a cemetery chomping bouquets to the theme of Godzilla. This scene isn’t just very funny, but comments on society’s dislike of strangers, treating them as monsters (hence the “Godzilla” music). People are disgusted and scared by Oscar’s creation. Oscar then meets a American photographer, who is amazed by him. But soon, the episode grows even more absurd as Oscar chews off two fingers of the photographer’s assistant and kidnaps a model played by Eva Mendes. He takes her under the sewers, where he dresses her as a Muslim woman. The woman than adheres to her costume and takes on her disguise.
That is easily Holy Motor’s finest scene, but the film never loses steam afterwards. Oscar puts on more disguises and takes on more identities. He becomes a father, a dying man, and even a murderer. Carax slowly introduces the audience to the idea that our world and actions are predetermined by a secret company Oscar is part of. Everything in our lives, be they odd or vile, results from people like Oscar, who pretend to be just average people. Our fears, wishes, and desires all seem to result from this organization, which perhaps has spiritual meaning (the title “Holy Motors” certainly infers it). What Oscar’s real identity is unknown, and later we even discover that his life at the mansion was just another ruse.
Whether Carax is mocking or celebrating human life was unclear to me. Perhaps he is doing both. But I recognized that he has made a golden achievement of cinema, a piece of art shimmering life itself. I believe great movies are the ones that capture you and make you forget you’re watching a film. Holy Motors did this for myself. While Holy Motors most certainly isn’t for everyone, since it depends whether you can relate to the characters or not, it is a film I think everyone should watch to see their own reaction. It is a magnificent epic.
Editor’s Note: If I updated my Top 10 list of 2012, this would have been in my top 5.