There is a leitmotif running through Holy Motors, given voice towards the end by Kylie Minogue: “who were we when we were who we were?” It’s a fascinating question, particularly in the context of a confounding avant-garde work like this one, which may well leave more people asking “what the hell just happened?” But I assure you that if you relax and accept what you see, it is eventually possible to discern the general outlines of what’s going on.
The film follows one appropriately-named M. Oscar (Denis Lavant) on one surreal day in Paris. We see him start the day attired in a good suit, getting picked up in a white stretch limo by his driver, Céline (Edith Scob), who tells him he has a full schedule of nine “appointments”. When the limousine stops it is no high-powered businessman, but a stooped old woman shaking a tin cup for change.
It seems that M. Oscar is an actor of sorts. His appointments are some sort of performance art, but for what audience — and even for what purpose — is intentionally vague. Some of the people he meets seem to be fellow actors, in on the premise, with appointments that happen to coincide with his own — Jean (Minogue), for instance, seems to be one he’d worked with extensively before, or even with whom he’d had some sort of relationship. And it seems hard to imagine the supermodel Kay M. (Eva Mendes) being so passive in the face of M. Merde — a character drawn from Lavant’s appearance in the anthology film Tokyo!.
I say “seems to” a lot here because writer/director Leos Carax intentionally blurs the lines between the performances and the surrounding narrative until I’m not entirely certain if the latter even exists. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that M. Oscar’s interactions with Jean are themselves another performance, that their seemingly-accidental meeting was planned, and that her next appointment was intended to follow on from this one, or was in fact part of it. I don’t know and it doesn’t seem Carax is telling.
And neither should he tell. Performance art, like many other modern forms, is at least as much about how the audience reacts to the piece as about what the author had intended. There has been avant-garde cinema before, and there has been performance art put on film, but I’m hard pressed to come up with another good example where the film itself is, in a sense, a piece of performance art.
Still, the canard some critics espouse that a film is “about” what we see and only that is a cop-out. Even Finnegans Wake has an underlying narrative — obscure in the extreme, to be sure — and can be reasonably said to be “about” various things. In the same way, Holy Motors‘ surreal journey lends itself beautifully to interpretation so long as you’re willing to put in some work. To start you off, I will give you two points. First: the film’s opening — itself surreal — shows a sleeping man waking up in a sealed room and breaking through the wall into a movie theater. Second: Carax’ given name is Alexandre Oscar. Make of that what you will.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.