Friday, November 23, 2012

Song of the Self: Holy Motors

Every so often a movie comes along that makes me grateful I never attempted to make my living as a film critic. Most recently, it was Leos Carax's Holy Motors, which is so simultaneously meticulous and ambiguous that it's almost impossible to tell calculating commentary from abstract zaniness. Impossible for me, anyway. Carax is clearly working on at least one big idea here, but it's hard to say how many of the individual gestures within each of the film's distinct vignettes directly serve that big idea. Put another way, Holy Motors might be a film of mostly unrelated tangents that find collective meaning only in their juxtaposition. Or, maybe not. It's a challenging movie, to be sure, and if ever there was a time in which I simply lack the analytical skills and knowledge of cinema history necessary to decode a film, this would be it. Then again, the more I've thought about Holy Motors — including breaking my usual rule by reading other reviews before writing my own — the more convinced I've become that applying a neat reading to such a boldly messy movie is like trying to wrap your arms around water and carry it like a solid. It's a disservice to Carax's method to suggest Holy Motors can be so easily contained.

So with that established, let's start with what we can be (relatively) sure of: Holy Motors chronicles a day in the life of Denis Lavant's Monsieur Oscar, who is in essence the hitman equivalent of an actor: traveling from job to job, donning disguises to support various identities, completing his assignments and then walking away as if he was never there. Where Oscar's assignments come from, we can't say. Whether his marks are aware he's just an actor, indeed whether his marks specifically ordered his services, seems to vary, and sometimes his apparent marks are actors for hire, too. His assignments run the gamut: Oscar plays an old beggar woman, panhandling on a Paris sidewalk, seemingly for no one in particular. Then he puts on a motion-capture suit, reports to a factory like any blue collar worker, and engages in various combat acrobatics before miming a sex ritual with a contortionist (also in a motion-capture suit) in front of a green screen. After that, he dresses like a troll, emerges from the sewers at a cemetery, bites off a woman's fingers, kidnaps a model doing a fashion shoot (Eva Mendes), takes her underground and then covers her body before exposing his. This is just the beginning. There are many jobs ahead, increasingly concerning death, but before we get there ... a musical interlude(!), as Oscar (or is it just Lavant?) leads a lively accordion/percussion rendition of "Let My Baby Ride," mostly captured in one long tracking shot.

Within and beyond all of the above there's discussion of acting itself and the changing methods of moviemaking, and there's a scene in which Carax wakes up in a hotel room by the airport and unlocks a hidden door in the wall with his finger and then walks into a theater where everyone is asleep, and ... well, there are probably a lot more "ands," a lot more details to sort through and decode, but I'm not sure all those elements are necessarily part of the same equation. Perhaps, as others have argued, Holy Motors is indeed about the craft of acting, or the evolution of cinema, or even Carax's personal struggles to get his films made (this is his first feature-length film since 1999). And perhaps each vignette is of equal importance with a very specific intent. But with that show-stopping "Let My Baby Ride" interlude as my guide (words I never thought I'd say leaving a movie: "I loved that scene with all the accordions!") Holy Motors feels more like a music album in which the individual parts are mostly self-contained, while still contributing to a larger identity, and in which some lyrics are more meaningful than others.

(Spoilers ahead.)

In some shape or form, certainly Holy Motors is about identity. Oscar's final assignment is to ostensibly play himself. And maybe it's just because it's the last job of the day, but it seems significant that Oscar appears reluctant to take on this role, pausing outside "his" home to savor a few more puffs of his cigarette before opening the door and embracing "his" wife and child, who happen to be ... well, let's just say that Oscar's marriage brings new meaning to the term "jungle fever." All of this might be a commentary on actors, implying that those who pretend for a living have no genuine self, but I felt something more universal than that: Oscar's day is an exaggerated version of what we all do in life to some degree or another, reinventing ourselves for different jobs, different interactions and different relationships. As that last vignette unfolded, I couldn't help but think of an earlier episode — one of the most straightforward and yet sneakily powerful — in which Oscar picks up his "daughter" from a party and, over the course of the drive home, learns that she hid in the bathroom rather than risk interacting with the other partygoers, as she'd first claimed. Oscar is disappointed in his daughter's lack of self-confidence, but more than that he's hurt that she lied to him, if only for a moment. And so after lecturing her about honesty he asks his daughter if she'd lie to him again, if she could be assured he wouldn't find out. She doesn't need to think about it long. Yes, she admits, she would, because "we'd both be happier."

Through that scene, Holy Motors suggests that these identities we create are lies we tell ourselves to be happy. The truth hurts. Admittedly, I'm placing a lot of significance on one sequence at the expense of others, but Oscar's punishment for his daughter's lying is noteworthy: he orders her to be exactly who she is, and to live with that. (If that seems like a strange sentence coming from someone who appears to lack a genuine self, remember that Oscar is merely playing the role of father in that scene.) Also noteworthy is what Oscar says when he finally walks through the door of "his" home at the end of the day: "It's me." Is it really? Where the truth of Oscar begins and ends is as difficult to determine as the boundaries of Carax's unconventional and unabashed film, which ranges from exhilarating to tedious (maybe I was just worn out, but I felt the deathbed scene needed subtitles for its subtitles) but gives us a lot to wrestle with walking out of the theater. Holy Motors isn't for everyone. It's not even for me (except for a few scenes, I have no desire to wrestle with it again). But, like Oscar, it contains multitudes.


Anonymous said...

Great review, Jason. Love the album analogy, and it's very much appropriate in this composite movie.

I've been delving deeper into Carax's work and have been struck with the similarities to Italian enfant terrible Pasolini. The same absurd, fantastical framework to explore primal human emotions.

Have you seen any Pasolini? Salo, The Canterbury Tales, it's all very gaudy and torturous, but I can't help but be engrossed in it.

Keep up the great work!

Stefan said...

Great job trying to explain the movie. I saw it and felt largely the same way. I think it would be good to pair it with Berberian Sound Studio. The two films are very similar. Style over substance.

Craig said...

Confident uncertainty is always more interesting than insecure know-it-all-ism. I enjoyed your efforts to unpack the meaning of this complex, enjoyable film.

jake said...

Wow! This made me even more eager to see this than I already was! I'll take your analogy about wrapping arms around water to heart and just let the film wash over me.

Also, you're a fantastic critic! Don't sell yourself short, I love your reviews and lots of my friends do to.


Richard Bellamy said...

I want to see this movie but it will be hard for me to find a theater that is showing it. Good review here dealing with a challenging viewing experience.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, all. I'll never be confident I'm wringing everything out of this movie -- it's one of those movies. But, having just reread this, I think I was successful in describing my experience with the film, which certainly lingers in memory, but doesn't quite call me back (which doesn't mean I won't go back to it at some point).

Sam Juliano said...

Jason, you do as splendid a job in unreveling the mysteries of this film as anyone I've read, and I agree this is a film to tackle again at some point. I found it a perverse, atmospheric, deeply melancholic film with the specters of Cocteau and Godard hovering overhead is a visual poem, a dream that comes to life with searing images and a swath of visual imagination. Leos Carax’ exhilarating metaphors feature a spectacular multi-character performance by Denis Levantwho is, according to the director (who appeared ‘under the weather’ at the Film Forum for a Q & A the night I saw it) based on an acute sadness from his own life, one he was reluctant to identify. This cinematic roller-coaster also contains a haunting song by Minoque titled “Who Were We?” A single viewing will never provide all the answers, but it still confirms it’s one of the best films of the year.