Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2013

Holy Motors

Witness for the congregation

Leos Carax grants us our daily bread in the ecstatic, celebratory 'Holy Motors'

Holy Motors
Indomina Releasing
Director: Leos Carax
Screenplay: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes and Michael Piccoli
Not rated / 1 hour, 55 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

For many of us, the movie theatre is a sort of chapel - a sanctuary in which we look for joy and celebration and regeneration. A movie is a religious observance, scored by a hymn.

You can pick out a cinephile by the level of devotion. For some, the theatre is a weekly rite. For the less inclined, maybe it's once a month. Then there are those who only go on special occasions - they're like the people who go to church, but only on holidays. And then there are the zealots among us, for whom the movies are a daily service. Sometimes twice daily. (At a film festival, even more. My personal record is six. My pal Jeremy pulled off seven. At Sundance one year I mathematically figured out a way to do eight - much to Jeremy's consternation and jealousy (he spent a solid half-hour looking over the schedule figuring out how I was going to do it) - but external forces delayed my quest.)

Anyway, we are the fanatics. Honestly, it's almost like we're trying to atone for something. I'll grant you this - we're devout to the point of piety. If you wish, you can take my feelings about this movie in that context. It's not hard to see the connections Carax is making in Holy Motors. It begins with a man (Carax himself) awakening in a darkened bedroom and unlocking a door hidden in a wall that opens up into the balcony of a movie palace. An entire audience stares at the screen in rapture and reverence, the seats crammed like pews on Easter Sunday, in one long, transfixing, dreamlike moment.

The opening of that door proceeds to the opening of another, this time of a white stretch limousine, and the film ends with one door opening and another closing, just before the lights go out for the night after a long, long day. In between, the limo transports us from place to place, from vignette to vignette and dream to dream, from tragedy to comedy to musical and back again. The limo picks up Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) at a mansion early in the morning, and he and his driver (Edith Scob) proceed to his daily series of appointments. Each appointment, a new scene, a new character. He has detailed files on every assignment and an endless supply of makeup, wigs, costumes, disguises, props and affectations.

At each stop, a new identity has formed, a new scene plays out, and M. Oscar - the consummate professional - performs his duty with grace and gusto. In the performance of a lifetime, Lavant, as M. Oscar, inhabits a lifetime's worth of roles. Killers, lovers, fathers, beggars. At one "appointment," he is a motion-capture artist, his body twisting and contorting around a lady in red, like a ballet on a sound stage. Later on, he's dropped off at a hotel and beautifully executes a deathbed scene with a mourning woman . . . before politely excusing himself, telling her he must be off to his next gig.

He is a grotesque, half-blind, sewer-dwelling curiosity, dressed in a bright green suit and long, sharp finger- and toe-nails, who kidnaps a beautiful supermodel (Eva Mendes), seizing the attention of a cartoonishly enthusiastic photographer in the process.

He is a middle-aged father picking up his lonely teenage daughter from a party. He is a bald hitman in a track suit. He is, later on, himself (is he?), crossing paths with a woman from his past (Kylie Minogue) - a woman in the same line of work. The two take a few minutes to reconnect, making their way inside an abandoned hotel - its floors littered with dismembered mannequins - in a scene that transforms into an achingly mournful musical number. And that may only be the film's second-best musical sequence.

Like a more colorful, more aggressive Roy Andersson, Carax strings together a series of distinct cinematic experiences, all equally strange and remarkable. Movies are remembered for their great moments, their iconic scenes; here, Carax is making a movie entirely of those great Movie Moments. The way he (and, of course, Lavant) changes gears is one of the pleasures of Holy Motors - a scene of earnest tragedy will be followed by one of twisted (and hysterical) madness. In one segment, he and cinematographer Caroline Champetier craft the single best and funniest image I saw in all of 2012 - and all with a simple two shot.

Yet for all Carax's love and celebration of movies, and for all the hypnotic, nostalgic joy he puts so prominently on display, there's a rising undercurrent of sorrow in the film as well. M. Oscar is exhausted, and expresses lament at the seeming deterioration of the importance of what he does for a living. He is losing his audience. That, or it's fragmenting. Or they're just not paying as much attention these days. There's a pointed visual commentary on the digital age and what it says about the medium and its future. So why, Oscar's boss (Michael Piccoli) asks, does he press on each and every day? "For the beauty of the act."

The beauty of Holy Motors is in the reverence with which it views movies and moviemaking, and the irrepressible humor and playfulness with which Carax celebrates it. In various moments, he seems to be suggesting that the magic of cinema is fading - or at least transforming into something else. Whether that's true or not, his movie proves there's still a little magic left. Holy Motors reminds movies how to dream.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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