What’s it all about? Artistry.
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 9, 2012
The Cannes Film Festival was a staid affair this year. The movies were thoughtful and well composed almost to a fault, exhibiting sensitivity but also a too-safe commitment to the rules of form and story.
Except for “Holy Motors,” an electrifying, confounding, what-the-hell-just-happened exercise in unbounded imagination, unapologetic theatricality, bravura acting and head-over-heels movie-love. Here, finally, was a film willing to take the kind of aesthetic risks of which we see all too few, even at festivals nominally devoted to discovery and bold reinvention.
If you want to know what “Holy Motors” is about, look elsewhere. I’ve had months to think about it, and I’m still not sure what ideas writer-director Leos Carax intended to convey. What I can tell you is that he takes you on a singular journey through cinematic, geographic and psychic space in this film, which functions on one level as a night-in-the-life picaresque and on another as an interrogation of movie genre itself.
“Holy Motors” begins in Paris on a typical morning, when a wealthy banker named Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) greets his limo driver, Celine (Edith Scob). As they drive into the city, he disguises himself as a beggar woman, one of what will become several transformations he undergoes to keep a mysterious series of “appointments.” (It turns out that the banker persona was a disguise, too.) Like an existential assassin -- or a one-man version of “Cloud Atlas” -- Monsieur Oscar enters into several of what seem to be preexisting narratives in which everyone plays their parts, whether it’s two actors performing for motion-capture animation cameras, a satyr-like monster kidnapping a supermodel (played by knockout Eva Mendes) or a niece visiting her dying uncle.
Each vignette plays out in encounters familiar from mythology, movies and real life, as the characters hit their marks with polished, professional precision.
Yet there's a wildness and ecstatic abandon to "Holy Motors" that proves more intoxicating as its weird dreamscape unfolds. Like David Lynch leading viewers ever deeper into an unconscious that feels deeply personal and universal, Carax elaborates on well-worn truisms — life is a performance, all the world's a stage — but with a level of all-out experimentation and inventive staging that makes them seem brand new.
Whether the audience fully grasps Carax’s narrative intent is almost beside the point in a movie that can be fully enjoyed for one reason: to witness an actor of Lavant’s gifts, put to use in a one-actor ensemble piece that recalls Lon Chaney in its breathtaking physical commitment. It’s surely no accident that Lavant’s character is named Oscar; every persona he adopts is closely linked to cinematic lore, whether he’s breaking into song in a romantic musical scene with Kylie Minogue or prowling the city’s nighttime streets in a film-noir redux. Tragedy, romance, thrills, melodrama, spectacle -- all exist in a production that pays homage to disappearing forms, not to mention the nearly obsolescent notion of objective reality itself.
Like Daniel Day-Lewis’s in “Lincoln,” Lavant’s magnificent performance is not to be missed. While Day-Lewis succeeds in finding the man in a monument, Lavant, in an almost mystical turn of protean shape-shifting, embodies a monument to the art of screen-acting itself.
Contains adult material and graphic sexual images. In English and French with English subtitles.