Holy Motors is a metaphysical dream-scape of a film; a beautiful, ingenious tale that unapologetically stretches the limits of imagination, described by Time‘s Richard Corliss as an “exhilarating trip of movie madness and sadness.”
French filmmaker Leos Carax’s first film in ten years shocked and perplexed filmgoers at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with some hailing it as a cinematic masterpiece and others decrying it as malarkey. Holy Motors follows Monsieur Oscar (an astounding Denis Lavant) as he goes through one day of work for “The Agency,” traveling in a stretch white limo to ten “appointments” throughout Paris. Oscar is either a super-spy or a prodigal actor, but as a master of disguise transforms himself completely – identities including a beggar-woman, manic psychopath, accordion bandleader, dying old man, anarchist, and father to a teenage girl. The purpose of Oscar’s work for The Agency is never fully disclosed and at times the illusion is broken, as others in the scene are revealed to be at an “appointment” as well.
The film also includes a few notable cameos, including Kylie Minogue as a fellow spy for The Agency and Eva Mendes as an oddly placid kidnapped supermodel.
I saw Holy Motors at the Roxie Theater in the Mission after hearing the unfortunate news that the Bridge Theater and the Lumiere Theater have closed this month. In a city with 74 neighborhood cinemas at its peak, six additional cinemas have closed in the past decade, including the demise of the Upper Haight’s beloved Red Vic in 2011.
Independent films are increasingly available on Netflix or other streaming sites shortly after their theatrical release. Why pay to sit in a living room-sized theater when you can sit in your own living room and watch it at no additional cost? THE EXPERIENCE, people! The character and history of single-screen cinemas provide a unique memory with each film; granted, the clientele is exceedingly pretentious, but it’s a special experience rather than the slog of unending escalators, acrid chemical butter scent, and labyrinthian carpeted hallways at multi-mega-plexes. I always think of my hometown Bijou, a theater crafted out of an old church, and the signature large cat snoozing in a chair in the lobby- would that ever happen at a Regal? No!
Back to Motors: This specific genre of film is of a particular taste and somewhat divisive; if the surrealist absurdity of films like Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or the Dylan biopic I’m Not There appeal to you, then make haste to go see it. If you find those works to be frustratingly devoid of continuity and obnoxiously head-scratching, then stay away. In watching a surrealist movie, you have to allow each moment to wash over you, rather than analyze each bit of it, agonizing over how it doesn’t follow common logic. The moment is what it is and you can interpret it however you see fit- it allows the audience to be actively participatory.
The film reads as a love-letter to cinema, reminding me of the silent-film infatuation of 2012’s Oscar darling The Artist. Rather than sticking to one specific style, Holy Motors draws reference ranging from 19th century stop-motion film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge to today’s CGI animation using motion sensor technology.
At times the frenetic pace of Holy Motors becomes draining, particularly in the second half of the film. Overall though, it is an exhilarating ride that allows the audience to laugh at themselves, the absurdity of the art-world, and not take it all too seriously.
After I left the Roxie, I wandered over to the bus stop to hop on the 33. Just sayin’, San Francisco is an excellent place to contemplate absurdity and the strangeness of existence. On Muni, strangers shared cantaloupe on the bus and chatted about Mother Teresa and Black Rock City, Nevada. At 18th and Castro, shirtless muscular men sipped lattes outside of Starbucks while a pack of mimosa-drunk women giggled and swayed on the sidewalk. To some degree the film made me think about the multiple identities that we create for ourselves, from that carefully selected hat that gives off the perfect don’t care stance, to acting as a mini self-funded PR machine for our curated Instagram posts (“What does the Valencia filter say about me?”).
Rather than worrying about our social perceptions, perhaps we should just enjoy this bizarre, 80-something year journey in which we appear to have found ourselves. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”