It has been an excellent year for French cinema, but Holy Motors brings back memories of the brittle, self-consciously ‘poetic’ malaise that has infected so many gallic directors of the past. How alarming for all red-blooded Aussies that Our Kylie should be embedded in this piece of Parisian pastry.
Kylie Minogue’s appearance comes at the end of the film, and is mercifully brief. Spare a throught for the versatile Denis Levant, who is rarely off screen, and plays a bewildering variety of roles. As Monsieur Oscar he spends all day being driven around Paris in a stretched limo, becoming a different character each time he exits the car. By turns he is an elderly banker, a crippled beggar woman, a stop-action hero in a video game, a violent madman, a doting father, an accordionist, an assassin, a dying old man, and so on.
The real name of director, Leos Carax, is Alexandre Oscar Dupont, and we may speculate that Monsieur Oscar is his alter-ego – a claim that has been made about the characters played by Denis Lavant in Carax’s earlier movies. This egocentric approach is reflected in the film itself, which feels like it is taking place inside the director’s head.
In his first feature since 1999, Carax has created a story that unfolds like a long dream sequence with no demarcation between fantasy and reality. One thinks of Jean Baudrillard’s fashionable theorising about a contemporary world in which the simulacre has become more real than the real. This is a rubbery foundation for a motion picture because it transforms the plot into a series of self-contained vignettes held together by the device of a long drive through Paris.
Carax’s theatricality includes an en’tracte, in which Oscar leads a troupe of accordionists on a trek around a cathedral; and the seemingly obligatory song that appears in every new French movie, regardless of genre. Kylie does the honours, but it’s a very maudlin tune.
At one point Oscar receives a visit from his boss, (Michel Piccoli), who does nothing to answer the abiding question: “What the @#$%!! is going on?” Although Oscar’s impersonations take place in the real world, in real time, there is a brief mention of “the cameras”, suggesting that his actions are being recorded and conveyed to some unknown audience.
As we never learn anything about Oscar’s employers, or those who watch his performances, the entire process takes on a metaphysical dimension. It is as if God is sending out his angels to make peculiar interventions into the everyday world, for some undisclosed purpose. When the boss raises the possibility of Oscar retiring, we assume the only exit is death.
There will be viewers who find this captivating, others will be bamboozled and irritated. I’m tending towards the latter position, because Holy Motors simply drips artiness. To get the most out of this film it would help to have an encyclopaedia of cinema close at hand, as Carax skips from one allusion to another like a consummate film snob addressing a group of like-minded friends.
It would be hard to miss the reference to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). A closing wink towards George Franju’s masterpiece, Eyes without a Face (1960), seems to be largely motivated by the fact that Edith Scob, who acted in that film, plays Céline, Monsieur Oscar’s driver. There’s a bit of Jean Vigo in there too, and other allusions that I half-remembered or experienced as a twinge of déjà vu.
This will undoubtedly be interpreted as a homage to the French cinema by one of its most peripatetic talents. It presents the movies as a kind of collective unconconcious from which dreams are fashioned. It left me feeling that Art is an enjoyable place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Holy Motors, France/Germany, rated M, 115 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 25, 2012