I won’t pretend to know what Leos Carax is up to with his frustrating, antic, maddening Holy Motors (2012), but he had my attention. This is a movie that shows a man who lives inside the movies, perhaps, and travels to different roles in the back of his white limousine, making himself up in preparation for his next “appointment,” which might be as the father of a teenage girl, a street beggar, a hit man, or things they don’t have words for. None of the roles are connected and what happens in one certainly doesn’t carry over to the next, but I don’t think that’s the point. I’m not sure there is a point to Holy Motors, but if there is, the fact that there isn’t might be it. Understand?
We start with a man in a room (Carax); he gets up from bed in his pajamas and feels the wall for a door. One of his fingers is a long cylindrical key that he finds the hole for and opens a door into a theater screen. He can see the people watching him. Then we meet Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) who leaves his modern home and steps into his chauffeured car. He is well-dressed and looks like a man who knows he has a long day ahead of him. He is greeted by his driver Céline (Edith Scob) who drives him to his first appointment. En route, he changes out of the suit and into the tattered clothes of a female vagrant, and we start to realize we might not be watching a straightforward movie.
Holy Motors really exists as a series of vignettes as Oscar goes from one scenario to the next fluctuating in levels of oddity. There’s a sequence when he’s covered in a suit people wear to be captured by computer imaging, and he plays a bizarre game of sexual Twister with a similarly suited and quite flexible female counterpart. On one appointment he is a murderer; in the next he’s the victim he just murdered. In another he has a tender moment as an old man with a woman who loves him as he dies. He prepares for these appointments in the back of the limo, which is stocked with all manner of masks and makeup and has a nice vanity mirror before which he can make himself bald or give himself a scar or a false eye.
None of the vignettes are connected to each other, but they are arranged with a certain purpose, one that deconstructs the audience’s expectations about how a movie should work. In the most interesting appointment, Oscar is a madman who roams the streets of Paris eating flowers and mumbling to himself. A high-fashion photo shoot is taking place in a park, and Oscar stumbles upon it and kidnaps the model (Eva Mendes), who, because she is not a person but the embodiment of the image she’s creating, reacts to this coolly and without emotion as if she’s already in the pages of the magazine. (I liked the photographer here who takes pictures of Mendes while gasping out “Beauty! Beauty!” and when Oscar arrives, with his creepy eyes and unkempt beard, changes cameras to a lower-rent artsy one and begins panting, “Weird! Weird!”)
Oscar then takes his charge to a cave and dresses her, using the fabric from her flowing dress to make a burka, covering her head and face. Then the scene devolves into carnal insanity. The model and Oscar do not engage in any kind of intimacy, but it would be difficult not to see the bizarre ritual they engage in as anything other than sexual. In Oscar’s very next appointment he pulls up to an apartment where a party is raging; a young girl steps into Oscar’s car and we assume the worst. However, it turns out that Oscar is her father, and they share a fairly typical scene between teen and parent, but based on what we had seen in the previous sequence, it takes a while for our depravity wall to come down and accept the scene as it is. Had we seen one movie about sexual perversity and then a second movie about interfamilial relationships, we’d never think that the first would inform the second, but in the same movie we assume that they are linked. Carax defies that assumption.
The movie is drawing a lot of comparisons to Cosmopolis (2012), which was also a maddeningly obscure tale of a man in a limo who made strange and varying stops. The difference between the two is all the difference. Holy Motors suffers from some of Cosmopolis’s inaccessibility, but its sequences are more inventive and interesting, and I never got the feeling that Carax and Lavant were playing a joke on us the way I did with the other film’s Cronenberg and Pattinson. Cosmopolis presented itself as a puzzle with crucial missing pieces in the pockets of its smirking creators. Holy Motors feels like a puzzle where the pieces got lost because the makers were so excited when they opened it, they flung them all over the place.
But make no mistake; this is a frustrating movie and that frustration robs it of some of its impact. It has to be enjoyed viscerally if it’s to be enjoyed at all. The moments the movie does reveal a little about its internal mechanics, such as when Oscar’s limo crashes into another and we discover that Oscar is just one of a work force of people traveling to odd appointments, are brief and they soon give way to more strangeness—in the case of that scene, Oscar and the woman in the other limo, after hinting at a romantic past that’s either real or part of an appointment, find themselves in a musical, which almost definitely is an appointment. With Holy Motors it’s best to just try and enjoy the musical, and not think about what the hell it’s doing there.