I managed to miss all Leos Carax’s 90s films, not intentionally, so my bafflement with Holy Motors wasn’t surprising as it’s a personal reflection upon cinema. I didn’t even realise that Carax was playing the character in an early scene who opens a door, disguised as a hotel wall, with a finger that is part-key. On the other side there is a cinema packed with an audience. This audience is the first thing we see in the film; I think they all had their eyes closed (Philip French says they are dead). They appear to be (not) watching an early scientific film by Eitenne-Jules Marey.
The debt to David Lynch of ‘Carax’ ‘s hotel room is rooting us clearly in surreal cinema. We meet Alex (Denis Levant, who always plays an Alex in Carax’s films) who goes from appointment to appointment, in a limousine, playing different roles, which appear to be real. But we know they aren’t because we are watching a film…but are they meant to be real in the film? Maybe some of them are but probably not. Irritated by this? Don’t watch it!
I clued into Holy Motors being about cinema, as Alex finds himself in different genres, and the film certainly fulfills the surrealist imperative to annoy. It’s supremely arthouse, as your brain needs to be switched on, and includes visually dazzling sequences; particularly the green screen special effects scene when the characters are dressed for motion capture.
It doesn’t all work, the ‘merde’ character is particularly annoying, but there are more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’; Levant, however, is terrific throughout. I also enjoyed Kylie Minogue’s cameo as a gamine Jean Seberg figure shot in an abandoned apartment store the looked like it belonged in Blade Runner with its grandiose architecture and mannikin parts strewn around. Edith Scob, from Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), plays Alex’s impossibly slim and elegant chauffeur… The references go on… and on.
Postmodern fluff or more than the sum of its playful parts? The final scene is truly absurd (I thought wonderful) and I’m sure it enraged many who were annoyed by the film. I’m not sure whether this is a profound film, a silly film, or neither; I need to see it again but I think, if I had caught the film in the cinema, it would have gotten into my 2012 top ten. Sight & Sound‘s October issue has plenty of useful contextualisation.