So of the many strange films one can come across, Holy Motors is among the strangest. It’s stunningly incomprehensible, yet immensely watchable – a treat for the eyes and a fuck for the mind.
The plot, as much as one can attempt to describe it, follows a man named Monsieur Oscar as he’s driven to various “appointments” in a limousine, escorted by his driver Celine. These “appointments” vary wildly – performing (?) as a beggar on the street, a motion-capture actor for a bizarre mermaid-snake-alien sex scene, a mobster assassinating his own twin, a parent picking his daughter up from a party, an old man on his deathbed, and others aside.
As best as it can be described, a series of vignettes where Monsieur Oscar plays different characters in scenes of different stories – perhaps even just different characters of the movie itself or maybe an entirely different movie or movies, but with no connection, no obvious audience, no directors or crew.
The connecting thread of the vignettes is his return to the limousine-cum-change room, where he has some brief moments of introspection about whatever it is that he does for a living, about how it’s different now, and one gets the sense he’s mourning having hit his peak some time before.
The movie contains an impressive musical interlude where Oscar leads a group of accordionists through a rousing song, a sequence reminiscing on his past with a colleague (played by Kylie Minogue, who offers her own musical number), comedy, nudity, violence, bizarre and pointedly mundane imagery, and all sorts of oddness that can’t be simply described.
Yet for all its nonsense, it somehow seems to make sense. It’s not possible to understand it, but there is some sort of logic to it all; Holy Motors is not just weird shit for the sake of it. This is a film that ends with a garage of limousines discussing their existential crises, and as the credits roll, it seems like the only possible way the film could have ended.
Key to all of this is a bold and malleable performance from Denis Lavant as Oscar, as both the actor and character completely embody all of the different roles in his “appointments”, both with heart and physicality. He’s able to move from a crippled beggar woman to a nightmarish goblin-man and convince as both, from a dying old man to a beleaguered father and make you believe, if only for a moment, that you’ve been watching a movie with those characters in it the entire time.
One gets the sense that Holy Motors is a deeply personal message from creator Leos Carax, but what that message is exactly is – unsurprisingly – hard to determine. One theme that runs through the film is that everything Oscar does is growing irrelevant, that the meaning behind everything he does has been lost to the past. This is echoed by the vignettes often centring on a moment of loss or disappointment – of particular note is Kylie Minogue’s character: wistful and sad, and their scene together takes place in the abandoned La Samaritaine building, decrepit and past its glory days.
With the most detectable plot elements focusing on Oscar’s performance and adaptability into different roles (and each with their own ostensible genre), it’s not hard to imagine Holy Motors as a paean to the glory days of cinema, or perhaps even Carax’s own career (of which I’ve only seen this film, so I can’t comment in too much depth). What’s interesting is the way that the audience is positioned to see Oscar as an actor performing in his different appointments – we understand (as much as possible) that he’s playing a part each time, and that with these different scenes come different levels of success. It’s hard to feel anything for the esoteric scene of the beggar woman on the streets of Paris, yet the scene where he is a father having an argument with his (or his character’s) teenage daughter after he picks her up from a party feel genuinely part of a larger story of which we’re only catching a glimpse.
At the same time, the film plays just as easily as an absurdist piece of Dada-esque art, incomprehensible at its core but somehow still moving enough to resonate with an audience. It’s undeniably strange, and perhaps the act of seeking out meaning in a film that so wilfully denies offering any meaning of its own is its own form of practical joke.
At the end of the day, a film as bizarre as Holy Motors doesn’t need any set understanding. There is no right or wrong way to watch it or take it in, as there’s no possible way to prove any response to it is more valid than any other. For all its potential codes and signs that may allude to a greater understanding, it can be enjoyed purely on the superficial level of watching a lot of amazingly shot scenes play out without any way to interpret what you’re seeing. And it is amazingly shot, and stunningly performed, and shocking, and funny, and confusing and incomprehensible, and just so very weird – it’s impossible not to recommend!