Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Leo Carax’s exhilarating and beguiling Holy Motors dares to explore just how isolating this concept is. By creating a futuristic dystopia in which the work of actors is to take on bizarre “assignments,” performing increasingly peculiar and dangerous acts for an undefined audience, Carax plumbs the troubling effects of the facades so many of us wear in futile attempts to find worth and purpose. Carax’s film pulls out the rug, succinctly showcasing that such attempts will ultimately leave only disconnect and despair. If we are all performing under the assumed identities we create for ourselves, and searching for entertainment by peering into the lives of others, how could we ever truly know ourselves?
Rather than preaching these themes overtly, Carax’s film forces us to experience them, presenting a series of mysterious and striking vignettes designed to bring viewers further into a place of strange alienation – everything from family strife to sexuality is stripped down to be nearly unrecognizable due to its odd new context. Indeed, acting out someone else’s life and never being able to find meaning or comfort in personal circumstance and identity would surely be torturous. In the end, the film is an indictment of pretension – a call to stop this madness before it goes too far. These themes are complex and messy, and could easily have been handled carelessly, but Carax stunningly searches his subject through the lens of skilled expressionism and refreshing playfulness, both communicating the dread of loneliness and the excitement, but ultimate emptiness, of new experiences. For some, the film will be too obtuse, but for this reviewer, it was an atmospheric and thematic tour-de-force that was simultaneously thrilling, perplexing, and deeply affecting.
A very strong ***1/2 out of ****
Deliberate in its disorientation, Holy Motors requires full engagement from its audience, a daring proposition for any film. However, this intense engagement never feels like a chore, as Carax skillfully moves from genre to genre, scene to scene, building tension throughout. Holy Motors not only tackles the isolating concept of living life through a façade as if on a stage, but on some level, the nature of art itself. As we know not who the audience of each scene is, we begin to ask if there is, in fact, an audience. Thus, we ask: is art still art without an audience?
|An increasingly weary Denis Lavant.|
Enough cannot be said of the brilliant lead performance of Denis Lavant, who portrays an actor playing about ten different parts throughout the day. There is little dialogue, but he beautifully captures the weariness of this life, these “appointments”, in his eyes, his movements, and his stature, which become increasingly tired through the course of the film. It is truly an incredible performance. The film, in general, is one of the most ambitious films I saw from last year (right up there with The Master, my favorite film of 2012), but Carax deftly handles the subject matter and themes. He creates gorgeous images, and I felt as though I was perhaps viewing something great. I’m hesitant to do this, but I think I will in the spirit of the late Roger Ebert, who was always generous in his praise.
**** out of ****
I do not find a four-star review to be reaching here, as the film was a truly ambitious undertaking and achieved surreal heights few films have attained. Indeed, I very nearly gave the film this rating. In the end, however, I found some digressions a bit too confusing to be helpful or supportive of its larger themes. In some ways, I think Carax wanted such detours to keep his viewers off-balance to further enhance the overall aesthetic and discomfort inherent to the ever-shifting landscape of the film. Alas, I thought they did more harm than good, but even in these befuddling moments, the film was strongly compelling. It was simply impossible to be anything but absorbed with the ride.
|One of the oddest sequences in the film.|
As you said, the film addresses the topic of art-as-performance as well, and does it adeptly. I find it interesting that the first question viewers are likely to have is, “For whom are these actors performing? Who is assigning them these appointments?” Because there is no clear answer, the film uses these themes to point back to its larger themes of modern disconnect. In one scene, our actor laments that he misses seeing his audience. Art may indeed be art without an audience, but it is ultimately without meaning or purpose, for performers act with the impulse to connect with others through their work.
Certainly, Carax willfully made the film confusing, and it did enhance the overall aesthetic and feeling of discomfort. This is especially important as we dig deeper into other ideas the film brings up, namely the loss of humanity and the significance of technology. This is something I’m still trying to figure out as I analyze some of the final sequences of the film, which I won’t spoil, but which point to the problem of overvaluing technology as it continues to advance, perhaps leading to the death of true human connection altogether. The film becomes increasingly tense and morbid in each sequence as the protagonist longs for something very human.
|Laughter is the best medicine.|
Hearing you discuss the themes of technology in this film reiterates how superbly multi-faceted and insightful it is. It is hard to imagine more relevant themes than these in today’s world, filled with many relationships existing solely through computer screens. I’m sure there are more themes to discuss as well – it is a film that undoubtedly would reward repeat viewing.
Which is why, perhaps, those scenes that you thought did more harm than good will reveal themselves later in more conversations and with more viewings to be something entirely new and great.
Let’s talk about the great scene in which the lead reconnects with someone with whom he clearly once found meaning and purpose. I loved the scene in the old department store. I found it enthralling and poignant. What did you think of it?
I also appreciated the scene in the old department store. Just thinking about it makes me truly awed by how Carax plays with film tropes and genre (music plays a large role here) to both build up and deconstruct the emotional ties we have to our pasts. The film dares to ask how we interpret our own lives, and whether the art we consume affects, in some unconscious way, how we perceive the world around us and tell our own stories. It is an impressively nuanced sequence, for though it is one of the few, short glimpses into our actor’s deepest desires for human connection, it also leaves the possibility that this connection was, also, constructed from the fabric of pretention.
It is incredible that a film so delightfully absurd and surreal would speak so well to the heart of humanity. There are other scenes in the film as well that were brilliant. I quite enjoyed the (more sensual) sequence that nears the beginning of the film in which Oscar dons a suit to do some sort of green screen work. It is somewhat of a visual marvel.
Tell me more about what you thought of the motion-capture scene. I thought it to be both disturbing and hypnotic – the act of motion-capturing was gorgeous, but the image created from it was grotesque. Perhaps this was a comment on how even sexuality (or perhaps especially sexuality?) can become grotesque if performed impersonally, solely to fulfill the demands and social norms of the modern world.
I completely agree. I also found it disturbing and unsettling when the created images were revealed. On the other hand, the actual sequence of capturing the motion was entrancing, specifically the action work done with weaponry. When he was jumping and twirling and running, I was completely hypnotized by the light show. Simply stunning. We could go on and on. There is so much to dissect here - a brilliant film with many layers of fascinating themes, and although it rewards repeat viewings, requires your attention, and is extremely surreal, the film is well-paced and never boring. I would say that Holy Motors, in fact, has almost no pretension about it. This is quite impressive, considering its wonderful reception at Cannes, the most prestigious film festival in the world. It’s fun, exciting, and actually quite humorous. If you are up for the challenge, it is not to be missed.
Two-as-One Rating: ***3/4 out of ****
P.S. I would caution everyone who is interested in seeing this film that there is a fair bit of frontal male nudity and sexuality. It is also fairly violent, and the violence is disturbing.