I doubt whether you will see a more idiosyncratic film this year, by American or foreign director, than Holy Motors by enfant terrible Leos Carax.
World-premiering in May at the 2012 Cannes Film Fest, the film became an instant success and the talk of the fest among critics, who were sure it would get a major jury award. Unfortunately, the film left Cannes without any recognition from the jury, which was headed by Nanni Moretti. (At least they chose a good film, Michael Haneke’s “Ämour,” for the top award).
Heving seen the movie twice, I stand firm by my conviction that “Holy Motors” is the most astonishingly entertaining and the most entertaingly shocking film of 2012.
It is a known fact that, once a movie is released, it assumes a life of its own, and after playing at Toronto Film Fest and the N.Y. Film Fest, “Holy Motors” is bound to have “long legs” (to use the jargon of my former affiliation, Variety). It may also develop a cult following in campuses and at midnight screenings.
Franco-American director Leos Carax (born in Paris, educated in New York) has always been drawn to themes of madness and breakdown, and to what could be described “cinema of excess,”to the point where the film frame could barely contain his ideas and ambitions. Thirteen years after his last feature, the madly perverse Melville adaptation “POLA X” (which contained graphic sexuality, including frontal male nudity), Carax has retained his ability to shock and unnerve.
Carax’s spellbinding, often extraordinary new feature, “Holy Motors,” captures the poetry of terror with a foreboding visual acuity that fits well themes of collapse and social disorder. Divisive and confrontational, the movie stands as one of the major achievements of this year’s festival.
Once again, the director is reunited with his natural collaborator Denis Levant. “If Denis had said no, I would have offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin. Or to Peter Lorre or Michel Simon,” Carax told the French journalist Jean-Michel Frodon.
In Carax’s first full-length movies (“Boy Meets Girl,” “Bad Blood,” “Lovers on the Bridge”), which form sort of a trilogy, Levant played a character named Alex (Carax’ real first name). A one-time wunderkind who got his start, like the major French New Wave directors, as a writer for the seminal French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, Carax has trafficked in film’s fragile, even disabused history to create some original and startling works.
In the early works, Carax drew heavily on the syntax of silent film, linking imagery and the actors’ bodies in stories of loss and fear. His new film is, among many things, a meditation on the singular life and career of Georges Franju (1912-1987), the French horror specialist.
Carax is especially fixated on Franju’s greatest work, the nocturnal and terrifying 1959 masterpiece, “Eyes Without a Face,” about an obsessive plastic surgeon trying to rebuild his daughter’s face, which he had disfigured in a car accident, from the combined parts of transplants of beautiful kidnapped young women.
The connection to Franju is made explicit by the pervasive role of masks, blonde wigs and deception. (It is worth noting Franju’s first film was about the French pioneering film master, Georges Melies).
The new movie is an extension and radical re-thinking of material Carax had introduced with his entry in the “Tokyo!” triptych made in collaboration with French director Michel Gondry and South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho four years ago. That work cast off a nasty, even misanthropic side, and the filmmaker has fortunately held in check.
“Holy Motors” looks forward and backward, combining science fiction with an upended, funhouse mirror history riffing on Cocteau, Bunuel, “Beauty and the Beast,” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “M,” among many influences.
Furthermore, the symbiotic connection between auteur and collaborator is established in the eerie and beautiful opening, as a man (played by the director) discovers a portal that opens to packed theater playing King Vidor’s “The Crowd,” leading to the introduction of the chameleonic protagonist.
The daughter in “Eyes Without a Face” was played by the astonishingly beautiful Edith Scob. More than half a century later, Scob, still beautiful and mysterious, plays the central role of an assistant to the nomadic and strange Monsieur Oscar (Levant). She operates a stretch white limousine, shuttling him from one assignment to the next–“nine appointments.”
Introduced as an industrialist, he incarnates any number of mad, curious and snarling personae–a street beggar, musician, assassin or father worried about the emotional struggles of his attractive though somewhat frightened daughter (Jeanne Disson).
Carax sharply intertwines the fatalistic and the satirical, like a ghoulish act of cannibalism followed by a sequence inside a haunted graveyard filled with tombstones that implore its mourners to “visit my website.”
As a work of pure abstraction, but also visual pleasure, “Holy Motors” is nightmarish, peculiar and entrancing. Alone in the elaborately detailed backseat of the limousine, complete with special lighting and a whole treasure trove of disguises and make up, Oscar is unleashed, appropriating or shift-shaping into different identities to suit his job requirement, like the flaming red-haired green gnome who kidnaps a statuesque and beautiful model (Eva Mendes).
The vignettes, involving performers as disparate as Michel Piccoli and the gorgeous singer Kylie Minogue, are given shape and consistency through the immaculate and haunting imagery of cinematographer Caroline Champetier.
For the movie’s occasional shocking act, what remains memorable are the more haunting and fragile moments, a young girl forlornly captured in the bay window of her parents’ suburban house, or the bright, emphatic way the Eiffel Tower lights up, indicative of a wounding vulnerability and serene melancholy that horror movies have always tapped into.
The final images and words, which vannot be disclosed here, are so magical that it’s safe to say they would please such diverse directors as Kubrick, Spielberg, George Lucas, and Chris Nolan, albeit for different reasons.
Despite its episodic structrure and mood shifts, ultimately, “Holy Motors” emerges as a unified, coherent, and visionary auteurist film.