Though undeniably one of 2012’s most generous rewards for a particularly bugfuck breed of cinephile, Léos Carax’s free-associative encore de siècle masterpiece Holy Motors seems a bit misrepresented by some of its staunchest advocates. Though its slanted anthology format and star performance refracted tenfold by Denis Lavant both give it the surface impression of an arty variety special, the film in practice is far more melancholic and plaintive than most other movies this meta-pleasurable, even long before Kylie Minogue arrives on the scene to croon, through possibly fabricated tears, “Who Were We?” As Minogue’s lament underlines, Holy Motors is a postmortem, and most critics correctly perceived it to be a requiem for cinema itself, albeit one that the film’s supporters would argue sabotages its own thesis by demonstrating a boundless array of test cases for ideas cinema—and only cinema—can still convey in a vital, innovative manner.
Not that some of the ideas the movie chooses to convey are by themselves meaningful but for the cumulative effect of Carax and Lavant’s virtuosic efforts. The framing device for their antics is that Lavant’s Oscar spends his long workdays enacting out a number of diverse scenarios, interacting with people in their presumably natural environments as though a featured player in dozens of simultaneous Truman Shows in and around Paris. It’s one long day’s journey into the life of a chameleon. He kicks off his day at the crack of dawn, gets into a limousine chauffeured by Céline (Édith Scob), and douses himself in latex and rags to mimic an elderly beggar woman on a street corner. From there, he follows the remaining items on his day’s agenda, which includes stints serving as a motion-capture stuntman and virtual sex thespian, a father berating his teenage daughter (who he’s just picked up from a party at which, in some form of dream logic, Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is the jam), an accordionist who rallies all of his kind for a rousing entr’acte, an elderly man on his deathbed, and so on. At some point, he reemerges as the rose- and cigarette-devouring Monsieur Merde, an obscene troll Lavant played once before in Carax’s segment in the anthology film Tokyo!
The density and variety of Oscar’s schedule, the brilliance of Lavant’s demo reel, and the inventiveness of Carax’s form all suggest Godardian levels of cross-referencing. But given Holy Motors’s ultimately mournful mouth feel, the asterisk marks all seemingly end up superseded by the five bullet points of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. In a movie subsumed by the sort of death that refuses to ever actually stick, there isn’t a segment that doesn’t feature overtones of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, oftentimes overlapping one another. The movie’s opening segment (its most overtly surreal filet) shows a canonical projection failing to engage an either sleeping or dead audience. A dog wanders the aisles of apocalypse, but the show must go on. In other words, the ensuing film itself is an act of denial that eventually gives way to scenes involving all other notes: the identical hitmen who kill, more or less, themselves; the earmarks of self-loathing in Lavant’s Merde; the desperate, seemingly off-script negotiating between Oscar and Minogue’s fellow traveler, Kay M., both sadly yielding to their fates; and Oscar’s final stop of the evening, returning to the embrace of his loving family…a family which (to dance around a playful spoiler) is notably not the same family he left at the beginning of the day, indicating that the acceptance phase proposes life as a totally new beast.
What’s dying? Carax tries to be as coy as possible, but I’ve seen no moment in any other film that has more devastatingly conveyed the shock of physical transition from analog to digital as the scene where Oscar dreams himself traveling through a cemetery. When one of the movie’s most patient shots suddenly begins glitching into the smear of a digital file gone over to rot, Holy Motors lays itself bare as the antithesis to the organic decay ballads of Bill Morrison. But beyond the decomposition is the reassurance that there will always be a new reincarnation. By the time Carax posits his entire film was probably about the cars the whole time (hence the title everyone no doubt forgot to consider), it’s obvious that we’ve only just seen the death of one movie, and the start of every other.
But since we’re on the topic of death, given the reports of the demise of Indomina’s distribution unit, it’s just nice to have their Blu-ray of Holy Motors in any form at all. That Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape’s incredibly sleek, jaundiced cinematography looks so good is the extra-satisfying payoff. Their compositions are tight and their images are reproduced brightly when they need to be bright and dank when they need to be dank. That all said, it is a single-layer disc, and may have looked that much better had it been given the full dual-layer treatment. The sound may be the more compromised component, though, as it’s only presented in 5.1 Dolby surround and 2.0 stereo, instead of full lossless DTS Master Audio. Holy Motors isn’t exactly the sort of film you’d ever use as a showroom disc, and the musical numbers still manage to pack some punch.
Fans of Holy Motors may not necessarilyy want the movie fully dissected, but a commentary track from either Léos Carax or even a prominent critic would’ve been welcome. Still, there’s close to an hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes footage as well as a short interview segment featuring Kylie Minogue, which makes for a rather endearingly wonky choice, especially since she’s obviously proud of the final product.
Get your motors running. Death moves at 24 frames per second.