“Holy Motors” is perhaps the weirdest movie I have ever seen. If it has a message, it was written in code. It’s a stretch to say there’s a plot. And for large segments, the film is pretty tedious. So what’s the deal?
It’s a French film, directed by Leos Carax (well, that’s not really his name), someone about whom I know nothing. The star, Denis Lavant, was equally unknown to me, but who proved himself to be quite something.
The movie was filmed in Paris, and there are several beautiful scenes (the city looking remarkably sunny, and clean, and with very little traffic), scenes along the Seine, but also in interesting residential areas. Lavant plays M. Oscar, who starts his day leaving a large house that looks like it could have been designed by Richard Neutra, saying good-bye to his (?) children playing on the archetypical flat roof, his young daughter shouting to him “Work hard, Daddy”.
Well, that he does. Looking the proper businessman, perhaps a banker, in an expensive suit, his body and his gray hair trim, spritely heading down the long driveway to the waiting white stretch limo, where a formal, posture-perfect middle aged woman (whom we later learn is Celine) says “bon jour, M. Oscar”. He sits in back of the limo and asks her what his day will be like. She tells him he has nine appointments and the first one is described in the file to his right. As he leafs through the file folder, his cell phone rings, and he has a one sided conversation where he makes it clear (so you think) that both he and his phone companion are in some danger, because “they are after us”.
After finishing his review of the appointment folder, his expression changes a bit (sort of a grimace, as I recall), and he gets to work. But not the way you think. He gets to work by looking at costumes, and makeup and everything you would expect to see in the studio of someone expert is theatrical makeup and disguise. You don’t see him at work for long, because you are back watching the limo skirt the river, and stop on the side of the road. The individual who gets out of car is not the wealthy banker you saw get into the car; the individual who gets out of the car is an old woman, perhaps a gypsy, her hair covered by a scarf, dressed in rags, walking very stooped, leaning on a cane. An extraordinary transformation. But why? All we see is this figure walking onto a pedestrian bridge, holding out a can, and presumably begging, muttering in a language that I for one could not identify. Then, we see the old beggar lady escorted off the bridge, the white limo pull up, and she gets inside.
We now see precisely that it is a disguise, and Lavant peels off the scarf, his face covering, and his dress, as he reads about his next appointment, where he winds up to be a visitor from outer space, or perhaps he’s an earthling from the 24th century, with an all black outfit, with electronic lights all over every few inches. He is driven to a large facility, which turns out to be inhabited by dozens of people (at least) who are dressed somewhat like him, he is given instructions by a disembodied voice who runs him through a number of acrobatic exercises, including on a treadmill than moves at break-neck speed, until he comes in contact with an attractive young woman-alien, with whom he engages in a sensuous dance/acrobatic routine that ends as quickly as it begins.
You ask if the remaining appointments are equally bizarre. They are; in fact to some extent they are even stranger. He does break to eat lunch in the limo from a bento box. He also picks up his daughter at a party to drive her home, and they have a tender/bitter conversation. Of course, she is not the daughter he lovingly said goodbye to in the morning, he does not look at all like he looked in the morning (this time, he is not a wealthy banker; he looks like a teamster, perhaps), and his house (or in this case apartment) is not the house he lived in last night.
There is a third house, and a third (and quite unusual, to put it mildly) family, to which he “returns” at midnight, at the end of the day, and Celine tells him she will pick him up in the morning, at the same time. She drives her limo (we had seen at least one other limo during the day) back to the Holy Motors home base, where the last scene of the film belongs to a group of 20 or so stretch limos resting for the night.
The film itself is a tour de force for Lavant and whoever assists him in his extraordinary costume changes. He shows an enormous ability to play a large number of extremely different, and difficult roles, each of them persuasively, and with extraordinary strength, flexibility and stamina, especially for an actor turning 50.
“Holy Motors” has been very well reviewed, although I would guess that most people don’t enjoy it while they are watching. Should you see it? Boy, that’s really up to you. If you think you would like this sort of thing, absolutely. If not, it’s probably not for you. And, if you happen to want to see it but miss it, perhaps you will see it in years to come as it plays the midnight shows, alternating with “Reefer Madness”.