Not too long ago I read an article (I don’t recall the author or publication) about last year’s award season in which a pop culture analyst said something along the lines of “it’s too bad that the stuffy old Academy keeps overlooking popular movies like Transformers 3 in favor of arty movies like The King’s Speech.” As an experienced film buff I can’t help but laugh when I read stuff like that. It’s hilarious because calling The King’s Speech “arty” is like the cinematic equivalent of calling The Olive Garden a gourmet restaurant. The people who say things like that have more than likely never seen a real “arty” movie, and if they ever did they probably wouldn’t know how to process them. To be fair to that writer, the film culture at large hasn’t done a lot to expose wider audiences to real “art films,” instead every year it creates this moment of buzz where movies like The King’s Speech are held up as the absolute height of sophistication. It’s only when you do watch real “art films” like the new Leos Carax film Holy Motors that you’re reminded just how far from the cutting edge the annual crop of “awards movies” really are.
The film’s main story begins with an old man, who will later be called Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) leaves his home and gets into a limousine which drives off seemingly to take him to work. Then, as the limo heads into Paris he takes a wig and makeup off, revealing that he is in fact younger than he appeared and changes into some old clothes and puts on makeup to make himself look more disheveled than he really is. The limo drops him off at a street corner; he walks about a block, and then starts panhandling on the street. Once this is complete he returns to the limo, changes into a mocap suit, and is dropped off at his next “appointment” where he performs a bunch of acrobatics at a soundstage. Once he’s done with that he returns to the limo, changes into yet another costume and performs yet another one of these elaborate performance art pieces in public and so on and so forth for much of the duration of the film. It’s almost never clear to the audience why he’s doing all of this or who is giving him these “jobs” to do. In fact, as the movie goes on we begin to wonder if the man is even human, and if all the other people in the film are “in” on all the shenanigans.
If that description didn’t make it clear, this movie is pretty “out there.” It’s movie that’s only for the most open minded of film-goers, the kind of people who are open to the many eccentricities of French art films and who aren’t going to freak out at unconventional storytelling and unclear symbolism. However, this is not one of those art-house movies where “nothing happens,” on the contrary, this is a film where (strange) things are almost always happening. In its own peculiar way it’s extremely entertaining. Denis Lavant gives an extremely physical performance in the film which requires him to constantly shift costumes and makeups. The performance is almost reminiscent of silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in the way that it’s just fun to watch and almost the entire focus of the film. There’s also something very fascinating about the way the film subtly drops hints about how big the operation that the main character in involved in gets.
The film opens with a rather surreal sequence in a movie theater and it also frequently intercuts clips from Eadweard Muybridge zoopraxiscope reels (which are among the first moving picture images of the human form ever created), and this makes it clear that Holy Motors is among the ranks of “films about film.” In fact, many of the main character’s performance art excursions seem to represent various film genres in various off-beat ways. For instance, that early scene in a mocap stage that seems to represent modern effects-driven action films. Elsewhere we see takes on horror films, crime films, musicals, melodramas and everything in-between. The effect is kaleidoscopic, but what does it all mean? Is it some kind of how hard it is on performers to for from identity to identity? Maybe, I don’t know. That’s what’s ultimately going to keep me from fully embracing the film as some kind of classic. I might “get it” more on repeat viewing, but at the moment most of what I like about it is all on a surface level, and maybe that’s how its supposed to be. It’s a film that probably is meant to be experienced rather than analyzed, at least on the first viewing. And what an experience it is.
***1/2 out of Four