Steampunk Desperado

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Holy Motors, Batman!

Pardon the pun, as this review has nothing to do with the Caped Crusader. It’s about the award-winning 2012 film Holy Motors by French writer/director Leos Carax. We had heard it was weird and interesting and that one actor played most of the parts. It sounded intriguing, but after watching it, Arlys and I were both shaking our heads.

I’ll admit that the movie’s concept is brilliant in its originality. In the film’s strange beginning, “the Sleeper” (Carax) wakes up and walks to a movie theater in his pajamas. After this, we meet Oskar (Denis Lavant), who rides around Paris in a white stretch limo performing unusual acting jobs. His driver Celine (Edith Scob) is also his appointment secretary. As she takes him from one engagement to another, the plot goes from strange to bizarre.

In each vignette, Oskar dons a disguise in his mobile dressing room and then exits the limo to play the part. A few of his gigs make more sense than others. For example, he dons a motion capture suit, goes to a high-tech studio, and simulates an alien sex scene with a woman in a similar suit. In another case, he plays a father who picks up his teenage daughter after a party and scolds her for not being more social. The girl accepts him as her father, even though he’s an actor in costume.

Some of Oskar’s of other assignments are even stranger. In one, he dons a ski mask, grabs a gun and assassinates a banker at a sidewalk cafe. Though it appears Oskar is mortally wounded, later on, he is magically unharmed. In another, he plays a troll-like homeless man who kidnaps a model from a photo shoot and carries her into the sewers where he reconfigures her dress into a burka. She accepts this and never says a word.

Arlys and I both formed theories about the movie’s message. She theorized that Oskar plays the roles others don’t want to, from performing fatherly discipline to killing people. I focused on the deathbed scene in which Oskar played an old man saying goodbye to his beloved niece and later witnesses his ex-lover’s suicide. I thought it was about death or perhaps the ultimate meaningless of life. We were both wrong.

In an interview on Indiewire, Carax explained, “[I]t’s a way of telling the experience of a life without using a classical narrative, without using flashbacks. It’s trying to have the whole range of human experience in a day.” [https://www.indiewire.com/2012/10/qa-leos-carax-explains-holy-motors-and-why-he-wants-to-make-a-superhero-movie-44180/#!]

In a weird way, that makes sense. Yet knowing this doesn’t make the movie any less frustrating. I must admit that lead actor Lavant’s range is amazing, and Scob’s dedication to Oskar as Celine is touching. The aforementioned deathbed scene becomes hilarious when we discover that both the dying man and his grieving niece are actors. However, the film’s last three scenes are infuriating in their stupidity. The last one is the worst when the parked limousines start telling each other corny “dad jokes.”

And what’s the deal with the title? The movie’s not about the car, it’s about Oskar. In what way is his mission “holy”? Two of his acting gigs involve murder.

My new theory is that Carax has played a joke on the film-going public, and won all the awards and accolades by stringing together a lot of nonsense that people interpreted as profound. If so, I salute him. Unfortunately, I can’t decide how to rate this. I’m inclined to give it two stars for being an irritating parade of pretentious nonsense, partially compensated by Lavant’s amazing performance. On the other hand, if he was truly pulling the wool over the eyes of the critics, it deserves 5 of 5.

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