"The more I think about Leos Carax’s 'Holy Motors', the more I appreciate it. The more I analyze 'Holy Motors', the more I am frustratingly confounded by it." — Alex Withrow, And So It Begins... Tuesday, November 13, 2012
You said it, Alex.
This movie really is a bit of a conundrum.
On one hand, ’Holy Motors’ is, on almost every level, kind of impenetrable and incomprehensible.
First, it’s mostly subtitled, which apparently is an insurmountable challenge for the average North American filmgoer. We know this because filmmakers are constantly remaking every half-decent foreign film for western audiences, whether they need to be remade or not (i.e. ’Martyrs’, ’Let the Right One In’, ’The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, etc.).
Frankly, I’m amazed that someone hasn’t tried to remake ’Amélie’.
Second, it’s very “French surrealist”, and by that I mean it is not particularly beholden to narrative logic. Or typical storytelling arcs. Or character development. Or, for that matter, anything. Many people will find this film, as I did, kind of disjointed. And they may find, as I did, that the experience of watching it kind of makes them queasy.
And third, this film celebrates the tradition and history (and illusion?) of the art of both acting and film-making. Some people will find this dubious and obscure and maybe even a little self-congratulatory. Make no mistake; it’s very cinematic, very precise, and expertly filmed and acted. There isn't a single wasted frame here, and even if you are often "frustratingly confounded" by what is happening, you won't be bored.
Keep in mind, this film is listed as #16 on BBC Culture’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century (https://trakt.tv/users/abstractals/lists/bbc-culture-s-100-greatest-films-of-the-21st-century), so you know you can’t dismiss it out of hand.
This film contains references to many different film genres – silent film, art film, family melodrama, musical, and even a random snippet or two of what looks like Thomas Edison’s archival film fragments depicting basic human movement. It is, in a weird way, a type of Encyclopedia Cinematographica – but I think only serious film nerds will be able to fully appreciate that.
[And, for the record, I am not a serious film nerd. I love film (especially Mindfuck Film like this one), but this is the first Leos Carax film I’ve ever watched, and much of my nascent appreciation for ’Holy Motors’ has only come through a careful reading of reviews and critical analyses.]
As a movie, it is deep and wide and mysterious and somewhat self-referential. If you aren’t big on French film, you probably won’t catch the references to ’Eyes Without a Face’ or ’Portrait of a Lady’, or appreciate why the art deco shell of the now-shuttered Samaritaine department store is significant. But maybe that’s okay.
And even if you do notice and appreciate all these deeper levels, you may still find yourself short of data to crunch when it comes to putting together a coherent thesis about whether you even like this film, let alone whether you can discern if it’s a little self-indulgent or ultimately meaningless. There are many levels to this film, but as I said at the beginning of this review, every level is to some degree impenetrable. You almost have to fight your way in. Hell, even the most superficial viewing of this film will leave you thinking something along the lines of, “What the effity eff? Leprechaun boners? Monkeys? Talking stretch limos? How did I get here? What the hell did I just sit through?”
But, all that being said, it doesn’t require a lot of effort to develop a growing appreciation of this film, and I can tell you from personal experience that it is worth the effort. The Enter the Void podcast has a great, eye-opening episode about this movie, as does the Someone Else's Movie podcast. But appreciation will only happen if you are willing to let go of your preconceptions of what film is, and how it works, and listen to Leos Carax speak in an entirely different film language. But, maybe, bit by bit, you’ll begin to see this odd, disjointed film as one of the most original, challenging, and horizon-broadening films you may ever watch.
And, really, isn’t that why we love cinema in the first place?