Written and Directed by: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes
Even though I’ve had weeks to ruminate on iconic French director Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS, I can’t tell you I’m 100% sure what this film is about. Just like great art, which we all know is completely subjective, viewers will walk away from it with a different meaning. And all of those meanings will be correct. Wild, bold, beautiful; this is a love letter to cinema past, present, and future. Carax has crafted an exotic blend of romance, comedy, darkness, and light and distilled it into the perfect cinematic cocktail. It’s a limo ride you’ll want to take again and again.
Taking place throughout the course of one day and night on the streets of Paris, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) transforms himself from a businessman, to a beggar woman, to a troglodyte, to, well, I don’t want to give it all away. He meets many other striking personalities such as Kay M (Eva Mendes), a supermodel whom he monstrously kidnaps into the city sewers (and “burkas” her, stifling her overt sexuality), and Eva Grace (played by pop songstress Kylie Minogue), another actor playing a dual role as Jean whose obvious influence is Jean Seberg in BREATHLESS. Schlepping him around town is yet another beautiful woman, the impeccably dressed and coiffured limo driver Céline (Edith Scob).
HOLY MOTORS functions brilliantly both as solo vignettes and as a whole. Each character has a dedicated vignette, but it’s all part of the same over-arching narrative. Even though it’s unclear why Monsieur Oscar is compelled to do any of this, we can sense he truly loves what he’s doing and feels it’s important work. It not only speaks to the transformative roles an actor can play throughout their career, but also to how an average person can start the day one way, yet be totally changed by the end. It even transcends the narrative and echoes the director’s underlying feeling on cinema – how we may not understand his reasons for making a film, only that he loves what he’s doing and feels it’s important. Every time Monsieur Oscar steps out of the back of that limo, the audience is on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will happen next.
Performances by all are top notch – especially from Lavant who bobs and weaves in and out of characters’ lives so adeptly. He is even forced to play opposite himself in one total mind fuck of a sequence (symbolizing how we can be at war with ourselves). The physicality that’s demanded of him to play the shape-shifting protagonist is quite astounding as he transforms from beggar woman to monstrous street urchin. Both Minogue and Mendes are a sheer delight, and turn in some of the most magnificent performances of their careers. Even though their screen times are short, they make an impact that reverberates long after the end credits roll.
Much like Alfonso Cuarón’s works, Carax peppers the film with green motifs: On Kay M’s dress, the glowing sign of the limo garage, Merde’s kelly green velvet suit. This could symbolize rebirth, change, newness – like the ever-changing techniques, styles, and faces in the world of cinema. Carax interweaves musical interludes for some much-welcomed levity, recalling the works of Jacques Demy. Attentive viewers will also note the familiar strains of 1954’s GODZILLA theme played for comedy during one of the sequences. As Monsieur Oscar comes to form his character, we mustn’t forget the importance of Bernard Floch’s hair and makeup design along with Anaïs Romand’s costume design. Both work effortlessly in tandem to help Oscar create his distinct identities, and for the audience to understand that part of the actor’s process of creation. Caroline Champetier’s slick cinematography sparkles even in the dark recesses of Paris’ underground.
HOLY MOTORS is a surreal and immediate film-within-a-film. Poetic, entrancing, and all around magnificent, if you love & live for cinema, this one’s for you!
HOLY MOTORS is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on November 16 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West L.A.