Of all the 2012 films I’ve recently seen that are set mostly in the back of improbably spacious limousines (that would be two, if you’re keeping score), Holy Motors is the best.
In fact, Leos Carax’s surreal, unclassifiable ode to cinema and performance might be my favorite movie I’ve watched all year – on the AV Club, Mike D’Angelo memorably and accurately called it 2012’s “most electrifying whatsit.”
It expertly teases audience expectations, dropping hints and allowing for inferences about what is going on, while never fully explaining itself – and closes with the most “Are you fucking kidding me right now?” gesture in recent film that I know of. Anyone who fails to laugh at the sheer batshit insanity of its final scene is beyond help.
It’s best not to spoil too many of the surprises for anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll be brief with the summary. Monsieur Oscar (the chameleonic Denis Levant) is introduced leaving his comfortable home and loving family for work – his daughter adorably cries out, “Work hard today!” – and climbs in the back of a limo. He reviews files and asks his driver Celine (Edith Scob, of Georges Franju’s frankly terrifying Eyes Without A Face from 1960 – an inside joke that Carax has fun with here) how many appointments he has today. They are numerous, and he sighs.
Up to this point, we could be watching the morning ritual of a banker or a CEO, someone economically important enough to exit his front door to a waiting limo and inquire about his schedule. The film, however, goes in something of a different direction.
These “appointments” are essentially roles to play, and the limousine is changing room, office, and trailer. M. Oscar peels on and off different faces, switches costumes, applies makeup, and reads notes. The roles, however, are portrayed as events occurring in the real world, though it’s not clear to what end. There’s an implication of a hierarchy, of bosses and fellow workers in the business of limousine-chauffered artifice, and a further suggestion that hidden cameras film all these goings-on. Is this how movies are made now, in this world Carax has built? Is that why M. Oscar seems so despondent in between appointments, why he’s lost his passion for his work?
There are lovely sequences of dance scenes morphing into simulated eroticism and then into animation of monsters curling around each other. There are gross-out scenes and murders and intrigue. And in the end, M. Oscar retires to the car, the back of which seems increasingly elongated and impossible as the film goes on, and his collection of characters grows.
There are other backstories – one involving his daughter, for instance, and another involving a past romantic and professional partner who resurfaces. These are no doubt relevant, but most of the film’s joy is in the appointments themselves.
This is the rare film where it actually is true that you never know what’s coming next. It could be anything. Carax, I think, is out to reclaim the entire medium of cinema from those who would make it safe and predictable, and to emphasize that at the heart of its artifice, like all performance, is a kind of dangerous magic.