Leos Carax took 15 years to make his next film, but he fashioned one of the decade’s most alert contributions to the history of cinema in the process, fundamentally tackling the idea of fiction entertainment and providing the most damaging, cantankerous commentary on the perils of acting and voyeurism you’re likely to find this side of the 21st century.
This inscrutable, willfully difficult monstrosity begins with an old man (Denis Lavant) waking up in his archly stuffy, bourgeois home to ride a limo to work. Well, presumably to work. Well, it is to work, but that’s besides the point. His driver (Edith Scob) informs him he has nine appointments for the day, and with tepidity he skulks right in. Then he scrapes on some makeup with precision and vigor, pulls off his hair, and the fun begins. His first stop involves a motion capture hootenanny, Lavant dressed to the nines in lightbulb sensors and a fellow, female, participant doing a dance with him that alloys the sensual and the robotic. From there he’s a monster, decked out like the Lucky Charms guy gone bad and cheekily beckoned forth by Akira Ikafube’s original Godzilla theme.
I won’t go into further detail about Holy Motors’s basic structure beyond that, except to say its narrative credentials serve superficially as a means to shoot gaily back and forth between film stereotypes, and serve truthfully as a much more dynamic, heartbreakingly textured self-destructive critique of movie-making and modern society. Yet it’s never didactic, and it sure as hell certainly isn’t preachy – it ends as it begins, with a giant screw you to the middlebrows in the audience, and a heaping helping of its own idiosyncratic, elliptical storytelling juice.
On some surface level, although I suspect it descends down to the core, the film works, and stunningly so, as a collection of scenes, a parade of some of the finest color-coded hallucinations the film world has provided us in a good long time. Certainly, its best scene, the aforementioned mo-cap smorgasbord, works as both a heightened, feverish delight of geometric form, an explication of the delusory, fanciful nature of the same, and an even a satire of modern filmmaking techniques most foul.
Which incidentally reveals what is truly bubbling underneath: a trenchant satire of filmmaking on the whole, and specifically the artifice that promises potential and stifles it just as much. The look of the film is gorgeous, absolutely crystalline and perfectly present but without any grit or grain, owed largely to the film’s digital cinematography. About which, Carax has just a boatload of fun; he is on record for despising the digital medium of film, and yet he was forced to film in digital to cut costs for the filmmaking. He has not hidden his distaste for this shift, not in person, and not in his film, which is why he goes out of his way to construct the narrative so that it mocks the false slickness of digital video in addition to the more general hellishness of soulless modernity.
His greatest trick is that its artificial sheen fits perfectly for the film’s deconstruction of the artificiality of film. One bit, thrown in with an intentionally haphazard, cavalier formlessness, reveals this most directly: an explicit ode to one of the all-time French films about false airs and superficial appearance, Eyes Without a Face. Elsewhere, the whole idea of the film, that one man can suitably play all of these false characters, is like a gross parody of corporate filmmaking: in lieu of honesty and the power of careful, passionate specificity of roles tailored to the best fitted performer, some ambiguous force has chosen rote efficiency (corporations always being ambiguous these days to fit distinctly modern fears). They’ve worked one man to near-death to wring out of him with desperation and coercion what many humans ought to do out of love and passion. The film’s enigmatic final shot, melding machination and soul, posits that everything might fade away to dust in the name of progress, and this is to say nothing of Carax’s cheekier ribs at the grotesque qualities of CG imagery.
It’s an altogether astonishingly playful, nervy bit of propulsive cinema, throwing images and events at us with giddy timeliness and the high spirits of a conceptual artist. It’s intellectual and heady but picture-perfect proof that great art doesn’t negate great fun. On a certain level, it rides high purely on human form, with Lavant doing ten times the duty of a normal actor and showing it with the malleable dexterity and eye for detail and performance of a Chaplin. Ultimately this is Carax’s bifurcated point: it’s all fake, but sometimes great skill goes into the production of the fake, and it can be damn fun to watch all the same. It’s a dense game Carax is playing, one pregnant with ideas, but it’s loaded with so much sensation and alertness it can’t but win over even the most tired of souls.