“Holy Motors” is a story about the separate lives of a crazed hitman, an accordion player, a dying man, and a father who are all actually the same man—a professional impersonator named Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant). The film is a collection of episodic shorts meshed together to form a relatively incongruent picture. Because of this scattered structure, at the end of the film, appreciating the aesthetic presentation is much easier than finding the defining thread of the plot.
Director Leos Carax’s first feature project in the last 10 years, “Holy Motors” follows nine business “appointments” of Monsieur Oscar from dusk until dawn. Oscar, escorted in a white limousine by his driver Celine (Edith Scob), has a vast variety of assignments in bustling Paris, some of which border on the supernatural. In each of these scenes, Oscar takes on the persona of a different individual. He plays a business professional, schizophrenic beggar, mob assassin, a loving father, and even a dying old man. In these subtle impersonations of the domestic and eccentric, the audience starts to get a sense of the bizarre job Oscar holds as a different character --although nothing is confirmed as to the reason for this playacting.
The film itself would be better described as a philosophical work of art rather than a plot-centered piece. “Holy Motors” is laudable and mesmerizing in its incorporation of stunning visuals with a sense of wackiness that forces the viewer to suspend reality in approaching Oscar’s story. One example of this off-kilter beauty is a slow-motion scene where Oscar plays a video-game green-screen actor having sex in a scene that merges a sci-fi feel with slow-capture nature films as the forms slowly melt into each other. The cinematography portrays Paris in a mystical manner through changing filters—most notably an interesting use of infrared where the colors eventually blends together so that no forms are distinguishable. The score reflects the mix-and-match filming style with ambient noises in unconventional places, such as the foghorn sound in someone’s bedroom that opens the movie. Both the director and the composer have the same vision of keeping the film unpredictable, which contributes to the mystic quality.
Lavant’s perfromance makes “Holy Motors” more than merely visually interesting. Taking on these various personas physically and emotionally, Lavant believably portrays such antithetical personalities. The businessman is cold and emotionless in his dealings. The beggar becomes a monster in his insanity, and his gibberish makes his crazed state terrifying. The father figure takes on such a relatable role that his interactions with his social outcast daughter serve as an emotional high point for the film.
Although the audience is drawn into the film strictly out of the cinematic beauty on display, one cannot help but wonder about where the plot figures in. At one point, Oscar runs out of the limousine naked save for a barbed-wire ski mask, shoots a restaurant patron in the face, is shot at by mobsters, gets up, and returns to the limo—with Celine’s help—and drives off. He is completely fine in the next scene, and he actually gets shot a dozen times over the course of the film. Generally, the only connection between all of the scenes is the presence of Celine, who serves as the narrator for the story.
Despite little continuity between scenes and the fact that Carax never gives a reason for how Oscar’s profession came to exist, much less his motivation, the film is still mesmerizing. Counter-intuitively enough, in the absence of plot, the viewer can completely concentrate on the artistic stylings and what the film means as a whole. “Holy Motors,” after the foghorn opening, switches to a shot of a crowd in a movie theater watching fabricated life unfold in front of them on the screen.
As an audience to this film, life as we know it simply is an “assignment” for these impersonators. We have no idea what Carax intends with these episodes of life that seem as if they were taken from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but the apparent ideology of life as merely a performance with no meaning is well communicated.As an overall work, “Holy Motors” can be described as a “cinematic experience.” The psychadelic rendering of Paris is at times breathtaking and mostly redeems a film whose overall connectivity is ambiguous. Granted, there are many questions that Carax poses that remain frustratingly unanswered, but given the amount of time he obviously devotes to making the film mystical, it’s not from a lack of explanatory ability. Ultimately, “Holy Motors” is an adventure worth taking as it spotlights the beauty of cinematography, even though this honed focus can only be achieved because of the relative absence of plot.