Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holy Motors

Grade: 98 (A)

There’s been a rather prevalent question over the past year: is cinema dead? Several critics, writers, and directors have complained about the state of the film industry these days: that product is placed before art, that the “right” kinds of movies aren’t getting made anymore, that audiences don’t like sitting in theatres with everyone else anymore (particularly without their cell phones at all points), and, perhaps most notably, that celluloid is being phased out in favor of digital photography. Some of these arguments have more validity than others, and cult French director Leos Carax seems to have collected several of them together in Holy Motors, his first feature-length film since the disappointment of 1999’s Pola X. But while Carax’s film communicates that sadness, it works against these very arguments. If anything, this batshit insane masterpiece is proof of the power and vitality of cinema, in whatever form it should take.

Frequent Carax muse Denis Lavant stars as Mr. Oscar, who spends the film traveling across Paris in a limousine by his assistant Celine (Edith Scob). Oscar’s job involves putting on a series of disguises and performing a variety of roles. In one scene, he’s dressed as an old bag lady. In another, he’s an old man on his deathbed. In another, he’s Merde, the mute, flower-eating character from Carax’s segment of the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!, as he falls for a beautiful model (Eva Mendes). In yet another still, he’s a hitman sent to assassinate his own doppelganger.

I could spend the next paragraph describing every strange and wonderful episode in Holy Motors without giving a full understanding of how joyous an experience it is. These segments all seem very loosely connected to the naked eye, but they somehow all make sense in the context of Carax’s history. Carax has admitted that many of these segments are from abandoned features he couldn’t get funded, and the title itself refers to Carax’s reverence for traditional film cameras as opposed to digital (which Carax was forced to shoot the film on for the sake of cost-effectiveness). Carax has, to some extent, created an tale about the death of adventurous filmmaking, the neglect of moviegoers, and the end of analog photography, but he’s doing it in the only way he knows how: through surreal, darkly comic mixture of genres (among those represented: melodrama, gangster, musical, motion-capture spectacle). Lavant, meanwhile, brings his own chameleonic talents to anchor the intoxicating madness in what’s undoubtedly one of the finest performances of the year. No matter what strange ride we’re on, there’s a level of familiarity and coherence to the sheer unpredictability on the screen.

Carax’s films frequently feature giddy explosions of feeling (the fireworks scene from The Lovers on the Bridge, a dance-sprint to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Mauvais Sang). What’s so exciting and beautiful about Holy Motors is that it’s seemingly made up of nothing but explosions of feeling, even in its quietest moments. One sequence features Kylie Minogue belting a song about past lives (no doubt in relation to actors’ roles). Another features a bizarre love-making simulation between two actors in motion-capture gear. Another still has a wonderful homage to Scob’s role in the Georges Franju’s classic Eyes Without a Face. Yet another features Lavant leading a group of musicians in an impromptu accordion version of the blues song “Let My Baby Ride”. Carax set out to make a film about the state of cinema and ended up making a film about cinema’s greatest possibilities. For anyone who truly thinks cinema is dying as an art form, let Holy Motors ring out as a defiant “FUCK NO”.

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