Holy Motors, by French director Leos Carax, is a movie that defied so many of my expectations that I felt, for quite some time, like I had swerved out from a cliff and lost my hold on gravity. I was confused, utterly confused, and yet, it was a pleasurable confusion, tethered somehow to those things that grab your throat and slap your face—“Pay attention!” they say. “Carry on!”—and awash in such maddening visual beauty that I could spend an entire year’s worth of breath sighing over images that seemed to arrive fresh from nightmares and dreams. It’s a movie that feels, at first, unhinged from both reality and fictional narrative. If asked to report on the action of the story, I would be forced to say that the movie is about a man who gets driven around in a limousine for a day, emerging periodically to perform various assignments, wearing various costumes, in a world that doesn’t seem to play by any of the natural rules.
But that would be a terrible description.
Yes, Monsieur Oscar, who you might assume to be a respectable man of importance when you first see him, gets into a limousine after emerging from what appears to be a loving family home on a workday morning.
Yes, his chauffeur hands him a folder with a brief for an “appointment.”
Yes, he goes through his day, driving from appointment to appointment, all of which he completes with varying degrees of relish, competency, and distress.
But, inside this tidy framework, the movie takes a running leap off the deep end of sanity. Monsieur Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, has appointments that require complete transformation. Every time he steps outside the sleek limousine, he inhabits the life of a different character—an old lady begging on the street, a mad leprechaun gorging on flowers, a motion capture actor performing a hypnotically ridiculous sex scene, a man in anger, a man dying, a man in regret. You have no idea who these people are. Their place in reality is questionable; their actions seem to have varying degrees of consequence. Each vignette absorbs you because Monsieur Oscar becomes so absorbed himself, vanishing inside every new life with such conviction that you become convinced—every time!—that this must mean something, that it must be real, that here, at last, will be a clue that adds up with another one… and then that life is tossed away and you are deprived of the comforting line of expected sense that movies usually serve up.
It’s frustrating, of course, but also interesting. Holy Motors is the most interesting movie that I’ve seen in a long time. There’s no time to be bored because its oddness, weirdness, and unembarrassed beauty constantly provoke curiosity. The desire to know what will happen next keeps rearing its gorgeous head, not because of some carefully tensioned plot, but because of the knowledge that it will be interesting and different and enjoyable, even if it’s also unpleasant, horrifying, or sad. The magic of the movie is that it mostly manages to do this without feeling like a succession of flashy parlor tricks. The oddball craziness reaches out and fondles the tender parts of our emotions, adding up to something human, even if we’re unsure of what that means. A friend once told me something about a very different movie that has stuck with me as a measure of the effectiveness of art that might be preferably inexplicable. I don’t understand exactly what they are telling me, he said, but I know exactly how I am supposed to feel.
By Megan Kurshige