‘Holy Motors’’ dizzying narrative will divide audiences

By Sam Flancher

The divisiveness of “Holy Motors” was evident at its premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

Met equally with cheers and boos, veteran French director Leos Carax’s film of audacious, polarizing proportions refuses critical consensus. With its grand assemblage of generic elements, “Holy Motors” frustrates as often as it astounds.

The film begins with an image of Carax in a dream state as he surveys a movie theater. The spectators are dead in their seats, and Carax stands above them as a large dog ambles up the aisle. The film’s narrative then abruptly begins—an ambiguous tale of identity, performance and human emotion in the modern world.

The film’s protagonist is M. Oscar (Denis Lavant), an employee of Holy Motors, a company whose specific function is unknown. He spends his days being chauffeured around Paris in a white limousine, donning new costumes and identities. His initial alter ego is a haggard old woman who begs for coins on the street. Time passes, and he returns to the limousine to change into a complicated motion-capture suit.

The film continues in this manner, moving through a dizzying array of identities and challenges. There’s a brief mention of hidden cameras surrounding these deranged performances, but little explanation is given. Carax holds the audience responsible for the film’s cohesion.

“Holy Motors” leaps from moment to moment at an astonishing pace. Scenes are haphazardly thrown together, giving the film a strange, frenzied quality. Oscar commits murders, sings, dances, plays the accordion and kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes) in quick succession. The resulting effect is nearly indescribable—it must be experienced to be truly understood.

For all of its ambiguity, singular moments in the film often stumble upon profound emotional depth. One such moment occurs late in the film when Oscar assumes the identity of a dying elderly man. Another Holy Motors employee comforts him at his bedside, and the two share an honest exchange in a world of methodically manufactured action.

Just as often, though, Carax paints his picture too brashly. An early scene finds Oscar in his motion-capture suit performing stunts in a specially designed room. A woman in a similar suit enters, and the two begin to gratuitously mime various sexual acts. The scene, a testament to the way we experience sex in the digital age, is over-the-top in its attempt at provocation. Such moments occur throughout, and sometimes make the film seem desperate for attention.

“Holy Motors” is a difficult film often bordering on brilliance. Its rapid-fire amalgamation of references and ideas is impressive—it gives nods to everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Pixar—but much of its execution is brusque and unnecessary. It’s an insane, beautiful, frustrating wonder of a film, which is exactly what Carax set out to achieve.