Some films are not for everyone and other films have an even smaller target audience. There are more unique films that divide audiences and live in an art house obscurity. Leos Carax seems to work outside of that paradigm though. The output of Carax has been sporadic, probably for a range of reasons. His previous feature (The Lovers on the Bridge) was released over a decade ago and was a massive box office failure. With Holy Motors he worked faster and cheaper and made a film that brilliantly encapsulates the history and joy of cinema in a unique film built around Denis Levant.
I first saw the film at the Atlantic Film Festival in the Oxford Theatre — a beautiful old cinema with one large screen and a balcony. The theatre was reasonably full and even though it was a long day filled with other films, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the film. One of the great things about seeing it is that everything that I read before said that it was strange and opinions were a bit divided on the film. Seeing Carax’s previous films had me expecting something that was a bit of a mess with some memorable transcendent cinematic moments. Carax is great at reaching for the ecstatic truth that Herzog also searches for.
The film begins as a sleeper awakes, opens a mysterious door and goes into an old theatre showing a film with everyone apparently asleep. There is also a baby and dogs. But the most startling image as the title comes up is a quiet theatre of sleeping people viewed straight on. It is as if the screen were a mirror and we are looking at ourselves. It’s powerful and beautiful and sets the stage for the episodic journey we’re about to go on.
While the film begins on the screen and it all exists in a cinematic world, what it really is about is acting and actors. The amazing thing is that it constantly reminds you that it is a film and that we are watching actors. Levant plays almost a dozen different roles through the course of the film and we see him prepare for the characters and then leave character. But more remarkable for me is in how I was constantly drawn in to the stories and forgot that they were part of a film. In a film that leaps around and changes the rules as it goes, being surprised is quite amazing and I was often pleasantly surprised. It is a very neat emotional roller coaster to be on.
Kylie Minogue shows up later in the film (with musical hints of her appearance earlier) and there is a stunning unbroken sequence with her singing as she walks through an abandoned department store. The musical interludes in the film break things up nicely, and they feel organic. Overall you could probably think of the film more in a musical sense as opposed to a more narrative linear sense.
Visually it’s a gorgeous film that changes styles as it goes. If you relax and let the vignettes wash over you it starts to slowly connect together and build up to a climax. It’s a love letter to cinema and actors as well as a bit of a requiem for the cinematic world that used to be. Holy Motors is really a film for film lovers, but even if you don’t catch all of the references it’s still a lot of fun if it is a ride that you want to take.