Re:View – ‘Holy Motors’

The Arts


Cinema once had a fine history of surrealism, from Luis Bunuel’s entire output to Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant ‘Synechdoche New York’, the genius work that I’m still staggered was ever funded. Bunuel, of course, was friends with Salvador Dali – if you haven’t read his biography, ‘My Last Breath’ you really should, or at least watch the documentary about Lorca, Bunuel and Dali let loose together as young men – and even Walt Disney, employed Salvador Dali to design a segment of ‘Fantastia’ calleed ‘Destino’. The segment was completed not long ago – see below.

In a way, surrealism is the only way to make sense of cinema. To anyone not immersed in the medium or Western culture in general, most heavily plotted films must look like incomprehensible random images. Bunuel’s films were waking dreams, reprising hopes and fears repeatedly, filled with repressed sexual desires, religious and political anger, and the inversion of societal norms (that there isn’t a box set of the director’s work says much about the cultural dead-end we’ve ended up in).

So to Leos Carax’s first film since the disastrous ‘Pola X’ in 1999. The bad boy of ‘Cinema du Look’ had made the delirious ‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’, famously rebuilding the entire bridge after he couldn’t use the real one, and it’s a film I must have watched twenty times. ‘Holy Motors’ has the same beguiling style as that film, so that even as you search for meaning (actually the meaning, such as it is, becomes clear at the end) you’re enjoying it from one moment to the next, and that’s something I search for in every film.

There’s no actual plot, but scenes involve Carax’s alter-ego Denis Lavant leaving his huge house and entering a white stretch limousine driven by the still-radiant Edith Scob, who gives him his list of appointments for the day. These involve disguising himself as a variety of characters – an ancient crone, a madman, a concerned father, a gangster, a dying old man, a melancholy lover – and entering scenarios familiar from the history of cinema.

In fact the film appears to encompass the whole of cinematic history. At one point Lavant dons a motion-capture suit and has sex with a mo-cap girl that then has CGI added. He kidnaps good sport Eva Mendes and drags her off (sporting his second erection in a Carax movie), and ends up being serenaded to by Kylie Minogue in an abandoned department story.

But for French viewers, at least, there are many resonances in all of this. The Samaritaine department store scandalously had all of its staff fired, and in the film mannequin parts litter the floor. Edith Scob reprises the hit she starred in sixty-odd years earlier, ‘Les Yeux Sans Visage’, and so on. The film covers cinema in all its forms from its Muybridge-birth to its computerized death.

The ending is transcendent as the limo returns Lavant to a new home where he lives with his chimpanzee wife, and all the limos return to Holy Motors, Lavant having played all the roles a human – and cinema – can play before reaching the end. Reactions to the film range from utter puzzlement (the very strait-laced Roger Ebert, bless him) to outrage. I loved it, but then I love a lot of weird films, and it’s no stranger to me than say, ‘Die Hard 5’, which I find infinitely disturbing.

3 comments on “Re:View – ‘Holy Motors’”

  1. Simon Sperring says:

    Many thanks for the heads up regarding Leos Carax’s new film. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. I think that the opening shot of Les Amants, the car speeding through night time Paris streets, is one of the great openings to a movie. Your phrase about cinema’s ‘Muybridge birth and computerised death’ certainly strikes a chord. Something essential was lost when chemistry gave way to digital. The ludicrous action moves that digital has given birth to leave me completely cold and unimpressed. Compare them to the speedboat down the Seine fireworks in ‘Les Amants (again!). Game over.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Yhanks for the Destino segment. I had heard some time ago that it was finally being finished, but had never had the chance to see it. Pretty good stuff there. Have always liked surrealism, if not so much the later Dali.

  3. Griffin says:

    Watched the Dali/Disney with my stepson who is a 2D animator (redundant). He said nothing as weird and as brilliant as that could be done today – too many CGI heads and not enough true artists.

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