French filmmaker Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an interesting film, but it’s not the art-house masterpiece that its defenders claim nor is it complete Eurotrash. The movie is about Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) whose profession involves completing “appointments” which consist of him playing different characters in the real world. We follow him over the course of a single day where he embodies the roles of everything from an old woman to a kidnapping lunatic. He is also assisted by his chauffeur, Celine (Edith Scob), who drives him to each appointment in a white limousine. The problem with Holy Motors is that, while having an unique premise, it can get very boring. The movie also suffers from pretentiousness, as it seems to be trying to present its ideas as if they are of great import despite the movie being quite shallow. Critics are wrong in saying that the movie is about nothing, but at the same time they are correct in pointing out the movie’s pretentiousness.
Basically, Mr. Oscar is supposed to be the representation of the modern individual; he is forced by an organization called The Agency to carry-on various facades. We never learn why The Agency wants Mr. Oscar to perform for them, but we are told that they have cameras everywhere, watching Mr. Oscar. This detail has been used to argue the idea that the movie is a commentary on acting. I can definitely see this interpretation, but I also think that it’s a shallow reading, and perhaps doesn’t do justice to the film. In any case, we see that when Oscar is in the limo, whether applying make-up for his next job or waiting, he is tired and almost seems like a cipher. One could argue that the movie is about identity, but the conflict resides in Oscar’s hopelessness and fatigue caused by constantly creating a facade. The movie is mostly about Oscar’s wanting of something genuine. There is one appointment where Oscar dresses-up as an old banker on his death-bed. A young woman is also there, weeping by his side. They exchange cliches and then Oscar dies. But then he wakes up and gets out of bed. We then see that the woman is also an actor of sorts, like Oscar, and they show a brief moment of something real in contrast to the act that they just presented. This short moment is one of the few times where Oscar seems somewhat happy, or at least content.
In a later scene, Oscar meets up with Jean, a woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years (played by Kylie Minogue). It seems like they were close at one time, either as friends or lovers, and that their commitment to The Agency is the reason for their separation. They talk for a while and then Jean breaks into song. After this they depart once again only to find out that moments later Jean had killed herself by jumping from the rooftop where they were confiding in each other. This scene shows both Oscar’s and Jean’s solemness and lack of hope within their existences. However, the reason why this scene is one of the best ones in the movie, is that it could be interpreted as just another performance. The seeming artifice is there, from Jean’s suddenly going into song, her suicide and Oscar’s over-dramatic and bizarre scream at seeing her body. This shows that the viewer can not even reliably tell what is genuine and what isn’t, creating a greater sense of frustration.
The problem with all this, if my interpretation is correct anyway, is that it’s not a very deep indictment or commentary on modern society. While the movie does present its ideas in a distinctive way, the ideas themselves still remain not very compelling. Perhaps it would have been better if the movie were shorter, something closer to an hour. Around the halfway mark, the movie starts to look very drab as we follow Oscar being driven around during the night and the stories the characters he plays occupy also become less interesting as the film focuses more on Oscar himself and the movie’s themes about the frustrations of modern society.
Another issue also comes in the form of the movie’s heavy-handed symbolism. At the end, after his day is done, Oscar puts on another wig and is dropped-off at his “home” by Celine. In a single, long-shot, we see Oscar go inside his house to be greeted by his child and wife, who are played by apes (did I mention this movie is surreal?) The only thing interesting about this scene is that the audience never goes inside the house with Oscar but watches everything from outside the windows. More bad symbolism comes later when Celine parks her limo at “Holy Motors” limo service. However, before she gets out she puts on a white mask, a very blunt way of showing that she hardly exists outside her job.
There are also some scenes that show potential, like when Oscar and Celine try to have a good laugh before midnight, when they’re going to have to deal with the drudgery of life over again soon enough. The scene doesn’t work that well because we don’t really know much about the two characters. Maybe that’s the point, but it doesn’t exactly make for an engaging viewing experience when we know very little about the characters other than what they’re supposed to represent thematically.
I originally thought this movie was created by an up-and-comer who, while having potential, is still sophomoric in his approach. So I was surprised to find out that this was Carax’s sixth feature-length film in a career spanning three decades. According to an interview Carax says that he made the movie because he was frustrated by his small output of films. It seems like he might have just pulled this movie out of his brain, without much cogitation, as a result. This might explain why the movie is rather pretentious as it tries to throw in near-random symbolism as well as containing weird and ridiculous vignettes involving Oscar as various weirdos–Carax could have been trying to compensate for his film’s lack of depth.
While I can’t say that the movie is “outrageous” or a “grandiose achievement” it is a movie that is interesting and worth-watching, if only because it manages to offer something different from the typical Hollywood fare. The performance(s) by Denis Lavant are very good and shows how versatile he is. The movie also has some enjoyable moments, as well as some stupid ones like when Oscar is playing a crazy who steals a supermodel played by Eva Mendes. Overall, the movie is okay, it’s just unfortunate that I can only appreciate what it was trying to do, rather than what is actually achieved.