Growing up as a young cinephile, there was always a gaping hole in my film experience: the art house. See, there wasn’t an art house theater anywhere near where I lived. It was a long drive to the closest one, and since they were all movies for adults anyway I was never too interested. Still, not having art house or independent cinema as a presence in my life may have colored how I see movies now. I only ever went to an art house cinema once, because I couldn’t convince my parents to make the drive for a movie they didn’t even want to see. The point of this story is that, during this time, I’d see a lot of trailers for art house movies online. I’d get excited, but I realized that I wouldn’t ever get to see them. I still watched the trailers, though, because apparently I enjoyed having my spirit crushed.
So when I saw the trailer for Holy Motors on Apple Trailers, I got that same rise and fall inside me. “This movie looks amazing! Too bad I’ll never get to see it.” The mindset has stuck, even though I’m at college now, in a completely new environment. Imagine my surprise to find that it was playing for two weeks only at a tiny little art house theater in the city, just a bus ride away. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to see a movie in my life. I was excited for The Dark Knight Rises, yes, but I always knew that I was going to see that one at some point. I assumed that I would never get to see more of Holy Motors than that trailer. All of a sudden, here it was. There was an actual, real possibility that I would see it. This was unprecedented for me.
I tell you this so that you can understand my mindset when I walked into the theater. The theater itself was an adorable café/cinema combination, in a tiny building with a single screen. The theater itself had alternating rows of theater chairs and leather sofas. It was an odd experience, to say the least, and more than appropriate for such an odd film. I was practically humming with anticipation as I sat down. I still hadn’t fully processed that this was actually happening. I completely expected to love Holy Motors with all my heart and soul. I should have known better.
Did I love Holy Motors? Uh, to be honest, I have no clue. I can’t make heads or tails of this movie.
Really, I mean it. I’ve got a document on my computer with my rankings for the end of the year. I’ve got every movie I saw this year on a list from best to worst. And I looked at it without the slightest idea of where to put Holy Motors. I mean, I think I liked it? I certainly didn’t hate it. There’s nothing to hate about it, really, as I’ll get into in a moment. But man, if this isn’t the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. I expected to have to think about it, but this is above and beyond anything I anticipated. It isn’t confusing, but it is baffling. I understood what was going on (I think?) but I’m still not sure why anything that happened, well, happened. I kept waiting for the scene that would tie it all together, but each scene ended leaving only more questions. Is this a bad thing? No, not in the slightest. It just means that I have to put some brainpower into this thing.
I’ll say this, though. Regardless of what it all means, I had a great time watching it. I think that I reacted in exactly the ways that director Leos Carax intended. I laughed, clapped, and cringed exactly where he wanted me to. So that’s a success on the movie’s part. Holy Motors is hilarious in its balls-to-the-wall zaniness, but it never feels like you’re laughing at the movie. The movie is in on its own joke. It knows how ridiculous this all is, and that’s the point. This makes the genuinely dramatic moments all the more poignant.
The problem with Holy Motors, if there is one, is that there really aren’t any stakes involved. After a while, we realize that no matter what, no harm can befall Monsieur Oscar in this universe, because it’s all staged somehow. Riddling out what’s fake and what isn’t is one of the joys and frustrations of the movie. The stakes, therefore, have to be emotional, but because Oscar is always playing roles, it’s hard to get a handle on him.
But I think this is actually the point of the movie. I think that Holy Motors is, in its way, a love letter to acting, and an appreciation of the men and women whose job it is to be other people. The movie makes this literal in its device. Oscar drives around the city, playing roles in real life, affecting people for good or for ill. There’s one line that stuck out to me that seems to drive this point home. At one point in the film, Oscar says this to a girl who may or may not be his daughter: “Your punishment is to be yourself.” Is the movie saying that this is the ultimate punishment for an actor, being yourself? Is this why actors play roles to begin with, because being themselves is unbearable?
The acting in this film is phenomenal, and maybe that’s because the performers are all on board with this idea. Denis Lavant, as Oscar, is perhaps my newest acting hero. He gives one of the bravest performances I’ve ever seen in a movie. Very few actors would get on screen and do some of the things he does, but he does it without a second thought. The result is a complex, wildly ranged performance that should earn him a Best Actor nomination if there’s any justice in the world at all. Really, he’s playing more than ten different characters, each so different from the next that it would make a lesser actor’s head explode. Lavant handles the transitions with astounding grace, and he gives my favorite performance of the year by a longshot.
Speaking of favorites of the year, this is probably my favorite scene in a movie this year. It occurs halfway through the film with no into or outro, but it’s a total delight in every way.
So, am I baffled by Holy Motors? Sure. Do I love it? I still don’t know. There’s so much that I still haven’t figured out about it that it’s hard to say. It’s certainly stuck with me though. I can’t help but admire its sheer boldness, its brazen disregard of sense or sanity. It all feels so deliberate that I know it has to mean something, though. It wasn’t lazily thrown on the screen so that the director could get some attention for his “brilliant avant-garde vision,” it’s too meticulously constructed for that. Anyway, whatever it means, I’m sure having fun figuring it out. Holy Motors isn’t a movie where you can check your brain at the door, but it isn’t so distant as to not be entertaining. So I guess Holy Motors is kind of the perfect movie.
Huh. Didn’t expect to say that, either.