Monday, July 30, 2012

MIFF 2012 Review: Holy Motors

Holy Motors
Dir. Leos Carax
Country: France
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 115mins

Like the lyrics of the Kylie Minogue song that humorously pops up midway through this French odyssey oddity, I can’t quite get Holy Motors out of my head. Using this 2001 pop phenomenon on the soundtrack – especially for a film that errs so far from the mainstream that it will actually hurt some of the gay audiences who attend purely for the Minogue factor – was a particularly inspired choice and just one of the many moments that pepper Leos Carax’s wholly original return to cinema. Some 13 years after his last feature-length enterprise, Pola X, Carax’s much ballyhooed film is one that genuinely inspires claims of true originality and is done with such panache that it’s hard not to be impressed simply by pure virtue of its existence.

Holy Motors is many things: maddening, confounding, joyous, “the magic of the act”. It shares much in the realm of unexplained mysteries as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive - and I don’t just mean the shots of limousines cruising around darkened boulevards – in that to find the “meaning” of the film is probably to go about watching it the entirely wrong way. And yet there’s fun to be had in extracting reason out of the series of events that Carax presents and just how the puzzle, and that’s most definitely what it is, fits together. It’s straightforward, but hardly straight, and that’s a pleasure to behold.

Denis Lavant stars as Monsieur Oscar, a man who, from the scant clues scattered about throughout Carax’s screenplay, spends his days being chauffeured around Paris in the back of a stretch limousine that is driven by the CĂ©line, played by Edith Scob dressed in a white pantsuit from heaven. He sets out on a series of appointments where he portrays characters for the entertainment of invisible watchers, like a real world Big Brother. While it’s hard to determine what the sewer-dwelling Merde who kidnaps passive supermodels has to do with the father picking his daughter up from a party, all ten identities appear to represent facets of the human condition that somebody somewhere is apparently willing to pay to watch. It’s a fascinating concept that makes for fun real world considerations. Is that crazy person barking down the street at 11pm just an actor? What fun to imagine. Furthermore, the implications that Oscar himself is a performance begs the question of whether this man really exists. A prologue suggests that Carax’s entire enterprise is some grand cinematic prank, but who can really tell? Certainly not I after just a single viewing.

Soon enough it appears that Carax is playing his latest film as a sort of modern day Jacques Tati. Using the concept of this man adopting disguises and characters to shed light on the lunacies of the modern world, whether that be passerbys in the street ignoring a old beggar lady or the ridiculous nature of motion capture. The black and white silent film that occasionally pops up throughout the proceedings recalls the nostalgic notions of Hugo and The Artist as Carax uses a vast array of technical abilities from captivating and transformative make-up to perplexing visual effects to turn his vision into reality. Scob donning a mask ala Eyes Without a Face at film’s end feels like Carax turning cinema in on itself like a full circle, perhaps hoping for a blessed melding of the current and the modern with the vitality of the past. One of the most curious moments sees Oscar’s world turn into a ugly mix of pixellated nonsense, while another sees him (perhaps) showing genuine admiration for what computers can do.

It’s a film of juxtaposition and dichotomy and no more is this evident that in the way Carax turns his rather jovial and playful first half on its head and gives his post-musical interlude sequences a mournful sensibility. It’s almost as if Carax himself is doubting his own hypothesis as a splendidly cast Kylie Minogue croons lyrics of a torch ballad: “Who were we / when we were / who we were back then.” That Holy Motors’ final scene (one that must be seen to be believed) is a very definite indictment on the callous nature that film has been replaced by digital, the mere fact that Carax has been able to make such a beautiful, sumptuous, almost endlessly intriguing film using the digital medium is certainly a cause for thought. He certainly couldn’t have made this film with its playful take on structure and narrative in the so-called good old days, and Carax is surely aware of the irony to be found in the loss of one medium forging his own acceleration of creativity in its replacement.

In frequent collaborater Denis Lavant, Carax has found a wonderful partner in crime. Much like the film itself, Lavant never goes truly overboard in any of his portrayals, and yet the madness is most definitely there. Scob and Minogue are lovely, with the popette proving surprisingly well versed in her role as a mirror to Oscar. Jeanne Disson as an unpopular schoolgirl in one of the film’s more restrained sequences is particularly impressive, while Elise Lhomeau’s scene is perhaps the one that viewers should pay most attention to. It’s Holy Motors’ “Club Silencio” in a way.

As it stands, Holy Motors is sure to be the most maddeningly examined film of 2012. An experience in every sense of the word, and yet one that never tailspins into tiresome drivel. I don’t claim to know anything about the rest of Carax’s career – nor the personal life that I have since discovered finds a very definite place in the film’s narrative – but I found Holy Motors to be a very engaging film that will likely surprise people. It’s rich, but never extravagantly so, told from an important voice. A-

Holy Motors screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival (2 Aug-19 Aug) and is released theatrically on 23 August.

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