"Holy Motors," from French filmmaker Leos Carax, is the best avant-garde film of 2012 so far. But that's not saying much, as it's been a terrible year for avant-garde film.
Despite its title, "Holy Motors" really isn't about cars. It's somewhat about technology, with limousines probably meant to represent traditional celluloid cameras -- so big and bulky that they are a challenge to handle. But oh so wonderful. Big wonderful machines. Stretch limos can barely turn a corner in the old sectors of great cities like Paris and New York. But doesn't everyone's heart skip a beat just a bit when they enter one?
First and foremost, "Holy Motors" is about people, as was the case with Carax's first film, "Boy Meets Girl" (1984). This is an avant-garde artist with a deep-feeling heart and a deep sensitivity to the people around him. Holy Love. Amen to that.
The film documents a day in the life of a man named Oscar. (Perhaps this is a tribute to American cinema and its big, grand Academy Awards. Holy Glamour.) Played spectacularly well by the protean Denis Lavant, Oscar is carted around all day in a white stretch limo, taken to a series of appointments throughout Paris.
At each appointment, he becomes a different character. His limo is a dressing room, where he applies make-up and elaborate disguises to become his next character. The first one is an old, crippled woman begging for money on the street. Another is a revolting barefoot troll (half-man, half-beast) who interrupts a high-fashion photo shoot and kidnaps the model (who is played by Eva Mendes). Every sequence is quite thrilling, and each one is so different from the others. Most breathtaking of all is the sequence where his movements are recorded in a stop-motion studio, for use in what appears to be a pornographic video game.
Gradually it becomes clear that these appointments are elaborately planned, and everyone he interacts with during each scene is also an actor. While donning his next costume in the limo, he is also reading a file that someone else has prepared, a summary of what his next character will be doing.
We even meet a man who appears to be something like Oscar's employer, who critiques Oscar's performances. Oscar announces that he has been having more difficulty staying in character because the cameras have gotten so small that they cannot be seen. This is when "Holy Motors" started to seem like a comment on digital filmmaking.
At my screening at the New York Film Festival, Carax was in attendance, as was Kylie Minogue, who has a small role in the film. (I initially thought this was Minogue's first time acting. But not so. She has appeared in a number of television shows and films, including "Moulin Rouge," where she played the Green Fairy. Who knew?)
Carax spoke for about a half-hour after the screening, and it became even more clear that "Holy Motors" was primarily meant as an allegory about 21st-century filmmaking and the demise of traditional cameras. At one point, he said the new cameras today are not really cameras. "They're more like computers," he said.
He feels sad about the rise of digital filmmaking, claiming that it "looks terrible." But "Holy Motors," which was shot 100% on digital, looked gorgeous. Gradually during his remarks, the object of his ire shifted. What really angers him is that he's been unable to make a film since 1999. He had several projects collapse at the last minute because producers won't back him. This has nothing to do with the 21st century or changing technology. This is the age-old problem of cinema being enormously expensive.
If anything, it's gotten easier in the digital age because the new technology costs so much less. It's no surprise to me that Carax finally was able to get a project green-lighted now that digital has triumphed. To me, Carax has digital to thank. Furthermore, I suspect that "Holy Motors" is going to succeed well enough financially that he's going to get another project green-lighted in 2013. Holy Digital.
While I appreciate Carax's work and consider myself a fan, I wouldn't put him in my pantheon. There's something still just a bit underwhelming about his work.