Holy Motors: who needs films to make sense?

Leos Carax’s movie is visually and emotionally engaging while seemingly devoid of a coherent narrative.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
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Holy Motors, the first film in 13 years from French writer-director Leos Carax, is a confounding film to say the least. The deeply surreal story follows a middle-aged man (Denis Lavant) who is driven around Paris in a white limousine, assuming various identities as he goes along, ranging from an elderly female beggar to a marauding, flower-eating troll. Over the course of the film we see him kill a doppelganger, have a bizarre sexual encounter in a motion capture suit and rendezvous with a former lover, who happens to be played by Kylie Minogue.

Just as troubling is the way the film’s production and release seem to contradict all of Carax’s artistic principles. His professed love of celluloid and the history of cinema is evident in the film’s opening moments, when a man discovers a door in the corner of his bedroom leading to a cinema, in which an audience sit, transfixed by the early moving images of Marey and Muybridge. Yet, Holy Motors was filmed in digital, is embellished with scenes of full CGI and as part of its release has been made available to stream over the internet, meaning much of his audience are likely to see it on a laptop rather than the big screen.

Carax has suggested this is all purposeful and the means by which he intended to comment on our increasingly digitised times, where the analogue soul of human interaction has been lost to the interface of social-media avatars; in which we, like character actors, merely assume different roles. Yet, that doesn’t quite do the film justice. Much of the film is far too bizarre and disparate to be neatly sewn together and, more critically, there is something inimitably poignant and human about many of these vignettes.

At one point, we see Lavant assume the role of a terminally ill man and the moment of death-bed catharsis he shares with his niece is genuinely moving. Even when the scene is over, and they drop the pretence and exchange parting pleasantries as he runs off to his next ‘appointment’, the aching forlornness of the scene isn’t dampened. His eventual return home at the end of the film is also oddly touching, despite the fact it is easily the strangest encounter in the film.

By failing to alienate us fully from the characters, Carax’s intended reading of the film falls flat on its face. Indeed, the constant flitting between the surreal and the poignant makes the search for a single unifying thread all the more difficult. Yet the narrative itself is mesmerising and, as the film unfolds, coherence becomes irrelevant.

By pushing the audience into an uncertain space, Carax imbues the film with a freshness and unpredictability. Just as at the beginning of the film, where we see an audience transfixed by the sheer spectacle of the moving image, Carax manages to recreate a similar experience. While I am loath to describe Holy Motors as a ‘love letter to cinema’, Carax does pay tribute to the splendour of the moving image – something he inadvertently proves can be achieved digitally as well as with celluloid.

At the centre of all of this is a staggering performance from Lavant. While we are privy to each of his elaborate costume changes, he is eminently believable in every scene, whether it is one of grotesque violence or delicate tenderness. Carax has said that he finds Lavant’s mere movements hypnotic, and his arresting presence helps to anchor a film that could have so easily slid into farce.

This probably all sounds like someone desperately trying to justify their fondness for a film that, in truth, doesn’t make one jot of sense. Nevertheless, I encourage you to go and experience Holy Motors with an open mind. You may just fall under its spell.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Holy Motors here:

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