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Holy Motors

Posted by martinteller on March 14, 2013

In his first feature in over a decade, Leos Carax creates a dizzying film where a man known only as “Monsieur Oscar” (frequent Carax star Denis Levant) is driven around Paris, being dropped off at several “appointments”.  These engagements involve donning costumes and makeup and “acting” in some sort of role.  A crazed sewer dweller, an assassin, a motion capture performer, an old woman, a father.  At the end of the evening, his chaffeur (Edith Scob) pays him.

That’s about all the explanation you’ll get, although little tidbits of information are scattered throughout, giving the film extra layers.  Just when you think the concept is running out of steam, some new twist is added.  Are the other people in this universe also “actors”?  All of them, some of them, none of them?  Do they have lives outside their performances?  There are answers, but it’s entirely up to you to decide where reality ends and performance begins.  The movie takes all those old clichés about how “all the world’s a stage” and aren’t we all just playing roles anyway… and blows them up to their extremes.

It’s a film about performance, and about cinema in general.  I can’t bear to use the phrase “a love letter to the movies”, and I’m not even sure it’s entirely appropriate.  Carax clearly rejoices in the power of the moving image, but also pokes some fun at genre conventions.  As easily as Levant slips between characters (truly a stunning performance), Carax glides from musical to fantasy to drama to action… crime flicks and revenge thrillers and family melodrama.  It’s the kind of movie where you honestly never know what’s going to come next.  I was reminded a bit of Tsai’s Visage in its surrealist non-sequitur, dreamlike world-building, and odd fusion of the melancholy and playful.

But I didn’t love it as much as Visage, nor as much as I thought I would.  I suppose I had too many hopes pinned on it, and I had anticipated that out of all the movies I missed last year, it was the one most likely to appeal to my sensibilities.  Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it (the accordion parade is about as delightful as movies can get) and its sense of mystery and ambiguity and meta-ness is right up my alley.  But there were a few times when I was losing interest, and even though it always picks itself up again, those little lapses kept it from being something I’m dying to see again.

It’s been several months since I’ve had a new viewing experience that really knocked my socks off, and so I can’t help being a bit disappointed, but maybe perception was tainted by too-high expectations.  Maybe I’m just getting grumpier and more critical (and yet sometimes I feel I’m not critical enough).  I wish I’d had the ecstatic reaction to this film that so many others had… but I’m still quite happy with it, and it’s not something I’ll quickly forget.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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