An examination of Leos Carax's Holy Motors

An examination of Leos Carax's Holy Motors

The Cannes crowdpleaser questions the medium of cinema and the nature of performance

Leos Carax’s Cannes hit Holy Motors is released in cinemas this month. Hannah McGill ponders this enchanting oddity

Whisked from place to place by his glamorous chauffeur Céline, a man initially seen in business attire keeps a succession of appointments. Before each stop, he transforms himself using elaborate costumes, wigs and prosthetics. He’s a crippled beggar woman scraping pennies on the Pont Neuf. He’s a performer in a motion capture studio whose movements become those of a CGI dragon. He’s a grotesque leprechaun that hijacks a pretentious fashion shoot and kidnaps the model. Sometimes he seems to be the real him, dipping back into his real life; but further layers of artifice are inevitably revealed. At one stage, he meets another one like him, a shapeshifter, and a Wings of Desire-style netherworld of eternal, suffering sprites is suggested – do these players take on their roles as some sort of penance? Elsewhere, it’s implied that it’s the cars in which they travel that wield the real power in whatever relationship this is.

So flickers and glides Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the sort of radical-chic cinematic statement that will seem as hollow to some as it will revelatory to others. Sometimes, this hallucinatory collage of angles on a life can seem as self-consciously pseudo-weird as the fashion world it spoofs. Ultimately, however, it works on the subconscious like a dream, unearthing emotional responses in unexpected places, and all the while asking us just what we’re doing having emotional responses to made-up stories about pretend strangers. (The fragmented narrative is a trick distantly reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s experimental novel If on a winter’s night a traveller, which commences countless narratives with equal verve and vividness but discontinues all of them). Performance, too, is central here, though what’s being said is ambiguous: perhaps that actors are the unsung bearers of all our dreams and neuroses, or perhaps that the quasi-religious intensity applied to acting as a profession is the manifestation of a collective delusion. And – loath as one is to accuse a film of being ‘about cinema’ in these post-The Artist days, when that implies some dewy paean to the dust motes in the projector beam – there’s no denying that Carax is also blowing a kiss to his art form here. Perhaps this film’s closest comparator is Mulholland Drive: like Lynch’s LA fairytale, it probes the artifice in emotion and the emotion in artifice, and asks what lies behind the masks we put on for others.

There’s an extent to which Holy Motors is simply a tribute to the extraordinary primacy of stories and pictures in our lives – the extent to which we live and feel through the filter of narrative, and the power this lends to artists. (References to the performers’ previous work assert Carax’s own fan boy credentials). But in there somewhere too is an exhortation to confront our petty investment in conventional, ordered narrative, and respond instead at the level of feeling. And deeper still, an analysis of the contemporary fragmentation of identity itself. In a culture besotted with image and self-transformation, within which technology offers ever more sophisticated means of disguise, who are we when we’re alone in the back of the car, going between appointments?

Holy Motors is on selected release from Fri 28 Sep.

Holy Motors Trailer - English Subtitles

Holy Motors

  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • France
  • 1h 55min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Leos Carax
  • Written by: Leos Carax
  • Cast: Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Michel Piccoli, Jean-François Balmer

First film in over a decade from Carax, starring Lavant as a man who travels between multiple parallel lives.