Holy Motors (2012)

The willfully eccentric Holy Motors (2012) is more than likely the strangest film I will ever watch. In it, we follow a balding, middle-aged man named Oscar (played by actor Denis Lavant) who is driven around the city in a limousine by his driver to play different roles. The catch is, these roles are unlike any theatre, film, or production roles we see in art. There is no stage, no audience, and no explanation. He plays a CGI stand-in for a dragon-like creature in heat, an elvish, leprechaun kidnapping a celebrated supermodel from her graveyard photoshoot, and a beggar on a bridge, among others.

If one were to cite a film arguing for European cinema’s role as a sort of counter cinema, this would be that film. All of Wollen’s elements of counter cinema after all, are present. The execution of this movie is truly unlike anything I’ve seen from mainstream and Western cinema. Besides the fixed itinerary of “appointments” followed by our protagonist, there is also no clear narrative. No semblance of straightforwardness or transitivity is present, and viewers have a hard time piecing together the narrative and the world it takes place in. No identification is given of the characters portrayed; all we are really sure of about them by the film’s end is their names. The characters are estranged from beginning to end. Everything happens in a homogenous world (single diegesis, from day in to day out) but seemingly takes you to another world as the protagonist moves from “appointment” to appointment. The only semblance of a homogenous world is the character himself: a strange man with a strange day job, working for the same agency and coming home to the same family every day after playing how many roles for who knows what purpose. Towards the film’s conclusion, the film’s overall impact shifts from unpleasure to a strange kind of pleasure. I found myself curious as to what role the man would play next, and whether or not it would outdo the last.

The film delves into different kinds of genres, and I genuinely feel like there is no one genre that can completely encapsulate what Holy Motors is. The “fantasy” tag assigned to it by many websites online feel like a mere formality. For instance, by adding music and theatrical elements, the film does transform essentially into a musical. It’s also hard to pinpoint what exactly the film is about and what it’s trying to say. With no audience to watch and no readily apparent purpose, one cannot help but wonder what the point of all this is. Ultimately, I personally feel as though the film is about cinema itsef, about actors and performance and the beauty of the art.

The question of art for arts sake thus also arises during the film. For instance, is it still art when no one is watching? His talent, after all, is obvious. The talent of Lavant, too, is more so when you consider the role he had to play: an actor playing an actor playing many different roles. He sits in his car and has a few minutes to acquaint himself with the script. More admirable still is the fact that not all the roles he had to play were even human; not all of them spoke his language.

In the beginning of the film, Oscar’s children call out to him as he walks away, asking him to work hard. This is something of a foreshadowing once you see the effort he puts into his many performances. All this does afford me a deeper appreciation for the performing arts. I realize that there really are countless aspects to take note of when you are playing the part of someone or something other than yourself.  

By its end, Holy Motors doesn’t give us any sense of closure whatsoever. Instead, I am left with the thought that as viewers we have to be able to detach from our need or desire for finality and conclusion. The film’s overall impact for me approaches a reminder that sometimes things aren’t explained in art, but it can still give us a substantial experience in terms of how we relate to the scene.

Is it possible to understand such a film when it’s made glaringly clear that the film wasn’t meant to be understood? If understanding is a viewer’s goal, perhaps that is not achievable. Yet, what is surprising is that I found that this didn’t matter at all, because after giving it a chance with an open mind, it was the complexity and the complete and utter chaos of a confusing plot, coupled with captivating performances that drew me in and kept me staying until the end.

The willfully eccentric Holy Motors is more than likely the strangest film I will ever watch, but it also makes a case for the most immersive, memorable, and thought-provoking one, too.

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