What is the purpose of film? Is it to entertain, to present fantasy and escape? Or is it to present perspective, to give us a glimpse inside another's dreams? And if it's the latter, what would cinema itself dream?
That question unites several of the year's best works, whether it's the apocalyptic meta cleverness of Cabin in the Woods or the interconnected mash—ups of Cloud Atlas. But where those films had their own consistent, comprehensible dream logic, Leos Carax's Holy Motors takes the route of conscious incomprehensibility, visualizing a cinema dream set across time, life and genre.
Running through genres as diverse as 3D monster porn, street level verite and Caro & Jeunet-like fantasy, Holy Motors is an experience that maximizes cinema's potential by breaking its rules, disrupting our willing suspension of disbelief in favor of illogical magic. It's a trick that works because of how wrapped up we as a culture are in film's rules and reality, to the point where it often supplants rather than augments our true life.
At the wheel of this new kind of dream reality is Celine (Edith Scob), chauffeur to Mr. Oscar (frequent Carax collaborator Denis Lavant), some kind of star of fabricated reality scenarios. The duo take appointments across Paris, Oscar assuming identities both realistic, such as a hobbled old beggar woman, and fantastical, as is the case with "Monsieur Merde," a horny troll who kidnaps a top model after stealing her spotlight and who is himself an invention from a previous Carax and Lavant collaboration.
The purpose of these "appointments" is never really explained, though the film's beginning and ending indicate that there is some kind of higher purpose behind them and it's tied to the evolution of human imagination itself. They're also dangerous enough that Oscar has a conversation about needing to carry firearms during his appointments and then proceeds to "die" several times throughout while also witnessing another "actor" die (perhaps for real, this time). He also appears to murder a few people, but as he tells Celine, sometimes it isn't enough to simply murder one person an evening.
The risk factor of Oscar's occupation grants the film a peculiar kind of tension, where it's clear that something– be it the actor himself, the production he is in or the medium of film on the whole–is in danger of nonexistence. But Carax also bookends the film with scenes that telegraph its surreality, as the director himself awakens from a restless slumber to enter a theatre that enters into a house that is a boat that is a house, an Escher-like level of circularity that comes back into play when Oscar's "story" ends and he is shuffled into a different kind of domesticity.
Don't mistake Holy Motors for some kind of Situationist con, though. Though it is clever as all fuck and demands repeated viewings, it's also a completely digestible meal that can be as mentally filling or light as you need it to be, heavy on heart and sentimentality but too funny and hip to be maudlin. But oh, that cleverness. How often is it that a film can turn a cemetery into a visual gag, as Carax does with tombstone after tombstone advertising departed loved one's websites? Or how frequently do movies leave you wondering whether something as innocuous as a license plate is a coded message about drugged up hallucinations, as Carax accomplishes by giving Celine's vehicle the tag DXM? Like cinema itself, Holy Motors is large and contains multitudes and as bizarre as it may sound in description, it truly is an immersive work of art that handles melodramatic musical numbers as well as it does slapstick prankster humor but that latter aspect may initially be lost on viewers blown away by the meticulous detailed and breathtaking cinematography.
Fittingly, then, Holy Motors is a film that demands full respect; this is not a film you wait until video release for, or that you pirate one drunken evening. This is a work that speaks in the language of celluloid, even if its director was forced to go digital and thus inserts commentary on the ever-mutating world of tech artistry in nearly every sequence (most notably in a gorgeous peek behind the curtain of motion capture choreography). Carax has with Holy Motors given us a rare glimpse into the head and heart of film and that requires devotion of our own, it necessitates a pilgrimage to the altar of movies, that dying breed the theatre, where every detail on screen and off is magnified and expanded. The only cost of entry and proof of faith is that you willingly accept rather than suspend your disbelief, that you listen to its message knowing full well that it may seem like nonsense and that's okay. And in Lavant and Scob, Carax has found the perfect evangelists, actors so devoted to their portion of the craft that they function like real life sacrifices, Lavant in particular is less human than canvas, an insanely committed muse who lets Carax artistically dissect him.
Lavant, though, is merely the most immediately noticeable representation of Carax's truly collaborative direction of cast and crew, but there's a reason for that. In every possible sense Lavant is hypnotizing, a presence you can't pull away from who lulls you into a kind of unconscious participation. That's not to diminish the efforts of Lavant's fellow cast members– Kylie Minogue, for instance, gets a tiny amount of screentime but is unforgettable in that moment, and Eva Mendes delivers an astounding performance as a nearly mute and shell shocked top model– but as Carax's chief emissary, Lavant has perhaps the most difficult part to play in the entire production, as even the slightest of missteps on his behalf could have thrown the entire film into the territory of failure.
Luckily, Lavant and Carax and the rest of the geniuses behind Holy Motors don't just succeed, they triumph, and the end result might just be the greatest and most important film of the year, regardless of how many eyes truly drink it in. If cinema could dream, Holy Motors would be its slumbering subconsciousness at its bravest and boldest, a fantasy of hope and humor and gleeful self-appreciation that would linger for a lifetime and still never entirely makes sense.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover