Since its début at Cannes, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors has earned an impressive array of recommendations from some of the industry’s most respected critics. Its beguiling mix of intrigue, A-list cameos and French eccentricity has had some viewers tripping over themselves with abundant praise, and the rave reviews have poured in. Sadly it appears Holy Motors’ core audience is something of a niche that does not include any who haven’t yet sold their entire soul to the art de cinéma.
It’s always refreshing to be challenged by a film. As we are bombarded with watered down blockbusters and dim-witted screenplays year after year, how wonderful it is to be truly stimulated by a film that forces you to ask questions. Holy Motors certainly does this; ‘what the f*ck is going on?’ being the most prudent of all of them. However when a film fails to provide answers, or even give the viewer a gentle push in the right direction, the ensuing confusion can very quickly turn into frustration and ultimately tedium.
Carax clearly has a vivid imagination, filled with unique and really quite exceptional ideas. He translates them to the screen with confidence and elegant style, culminating in a number of hypnotic sequences that will raise more than eyebrows. However what lets him down is the glue that holds these sequences together, or more the fact that there isn’t any. Holy Motors has virtually no narrative, leaving the viewer disconnected from the film, and likely feeling exasperated from trying to decipher the limited storytelling that does exist.
The general consensus is that this is an ode to cinema itself, built around references to many of Carax’s favorite movies. Mr. Oscar, our enigmatic protagonist, slips from one scenario to another as if acting in a series of short films. In each scene he transforms himself, taking on a variety of personas; some dangerous, others gentle, many of them grotesque. Actor Denis Lavant excels in each and every role, and while many of them are difficult to like, no one could ever criticize the unfaltering commitment shown. His performance is one of the film’s highlights. Likewise brief appearances from Eva Mendes and Australian starlet Kylie Minogue create added excitement. Neither has a great deal to do, yet each makes an impression, Minogue in particular, who performs one of the film’s two musical sequences; a treat for fans who slogged through 90 minutes before so much of a glimpse of the long-established pop princess.
However it is all to limited effect when the films Carax references are so obscure, the majority of the audience will struggle to understand them. Granted, it may be my own shortcoming as a viewer and critic that these references seemed to fly—endlessly, one after another—straight over my head. Yet the fact remains that Carax’s referencing has prompted no desire in me to seek out the films alluded to, in fact it has done quite the opposite.
I left the screening with a heavy heart. My patience had been tested, I felt inadequate in my lack of comprehension, and frustrated by the journey that had taken place with little resolution or purpose. All of this culminated in a feeling of intense dissatisfaction as I have not experienced in the cinema for some time. Perhaps it was in part a dissatisfaction in myself, but undoubtedly it came down to the fact that Holy Motors contains such imagination and promise that appears so rarely each year, yet Carax places it out of reach from much of his audience. It is selfish filmmaking and a crushing disappointment.