Such is the magic of cinema: a director all but left for dead as an unreliable megalomaniac is reborn and acclaimed as a genius with a Hail Mary pass of a film not many people expected. The acclaim Holy Motors received at Cannes 2012 made it the must-see art-house film of the year; and yet, French auteur terrible Léos Carax has not budged at all from his uncompromising filming stand. Holy Motors is the least linear and most demanding of his works, even if it is hardly inaccessible; not so much a narrative, more of an abstract meditation on the very nature and existence of cinema, told through a series of tableaux connected in a daisy chain of love letters to the magic of illusion.

     There is, to be sure, a through-line to this dozen micro-narratives constantly harking back to the director's past features: a man (the remarkable Denis Lavant) leaves home in the morning, picked up by a limousine in order to go to work. Is he an executive, a politician, a power broker? No: his job is to sell illusions, to make fantasy come true, by disguising himself as an actor would and performing a number of "assignments" for... whom exactly? We'll never know; and that's not the point. The point is made in a brief conversation halfway through the picture between the chameleonic Mr. Lavant and Michel Piccoli in a one-scene cameo: the point is "the beauty of the gesture", art for art's sake, performance for its own pleasure, a terminal belief in the romantic idea of art as a gloriously intangible something that enriches one's life.

     But is this art?, some will ask when confronted with Holy Motors' patchwork of unconnected stories. For all its invention and dazzle, this certainly isn't my favorite film of Mr. Carax's. Where there was focus and intensity, even in sprawling, in his previous works, the cornucopia of episodes here skid from pointless to grave and prevent one mood from lingering too long, even if there are moments of ravishing melancholy throughout and a general sense of the end of an era, almost as if Holy Motors was a requiem for cinema as we knew it. There is indeed some irony in realising that this requiem railing mightily against the dying of the light has marked the rebirth of Mr. Carax's reputation and was shot in digital since there was no other way the production could raise its financing - and, moreover, how can this be a requiem when there is so much invention going on?

     Could this just be another one of those regular grumbles from Grinches blabbing on about the "good old days"? Certainly, Mr. Carax is welcome to mourn and grumble as much as he likes as long as he can keep giving us films like Holy Motors; no matter how much one may find fault or displeasure with elements of the picture, it retains his peculiar way of asking intimate questions in a grandiose scale, it conjures up magic out of nowhere, it risks life and limb by going fearlessly all out. The beauty of the gesture may not be enough to make it into a masterpiece, but there is much to be said for it.

Cast: Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Kylie Minogue, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli, Élise Chomeau, Eva Mendes

Director and writer: Léos Carax
Cinematography: Caroline Champetier, Yves Cape (colour, processing by Éclair Group)
Designer: Florian Sanson
Costumes: Anaïs Romand
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Producer: Martine Marignac (Pierre Grise Productions, Théo Films, ARTE France Cinéma, Pandora Film in co-production with ARTE GEIE and WDR/ARTE)
France/Germany, 2012, 115 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 2 (Lisbon), December 5th 2012


Popular Posts