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Over the course of a single day, Monsieur Oscar travels by limousine around Paris to a series of nine appointments, transforming into new characters at each stop. He is a captain of industry, a gypsy beggar, a digitized ninja warrior (and reptilian sex god!), a gibberish-spewing troglodyte, the melancholy father of a teenage daughter, a shadowy assassin, a dying old man, and a thwarted lover reuniting with a past flame.
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The connecting fiber of the film is the dreamlike "appointments" Mr. Oscar has to keep throughout his ordeal-laden day. He is escorted to these appointments by Céline (the still lovely Edith Scob,) the limo driver of the netherworld. The film careens wildly between the appointments, and the suspense of what is coming next is almost palpable. One minute Lavant is running on a treadmill with a machine gun, the next minute there are snakes kissing before moving onto a flower eating scene in a cemetery. Note in the graveyard the tombstone that reads "Visit My Website." Humorous images like this pop up at the least expected times during the film and vanish quickly leaving the viewer to question what all has been missed. There are, by the way, a couple of uses of nudity in a non-erotic arthouse manner; both scenes are far more disturbing than titillating, and in both examples I was wholly unprepared for the exposure.
I liked the metaphor of Oscar's limousine, which is also a makeup and prosthetic lab to enable his transformations: he is being transported in grand Hollywood style between fateful appointments. The dialogue is sparse and the English subtitles are excellent, but most of the nuances of the film are visual, and require viewer cooperation to connect the dots as to what's going on at any moment. Lavant is a stunningly brilliant actor who slips seamlessly between roles, though some stories require more thespian skill than others, one that I found especially challenging was the scene in which Theo is murdered. I have never seen another film killing as deliberately misleading until the very end, and the ability of Carax to lead the audience into thinking they know what is coming next only to completely alter their outlook in the least expected way possible is astounding. Although the dialogue is generally sparse, what there is is both wry and brilliant. When Céline suggests that Mr. Oscar is feeling ill, for instance, he replies "I think I caught a cold killing the banker." There's no sign in his voice that there should be anything out of the ordinary in that killing (which is another visual stunner.) Likewise the surreal nature of the film is manifested in more incidental dialogue. When there is an altercation between drivers one yells the scathing insult "Ectoplasm on wheels!" You'd have to look far to find dialogue like that elsewhere.
I found the final appointment the most disturbing and poignant of all. Kylie Minogue turns up as a beautiful flight attendant; she does a great job with the role, and even though it had not previously been a musical, you take in in stride when she breaks into song without warning, because that's just the kind of thing Carax can do effortlessly. As Céline finally drops the weary Mr. Oscar off at his home after his exhausting day, we get the one glimpse into his personal life as we see him interact with his longsuffering wife. This twist is one of the greatest delights in the film, and it would be positively criminal to reveal it. Even as Céline takes the limo back to the garage to put it to sleep with all the other limos, she reprises her famous identity from 1960's "Eyes Without a Face," another coy nod at the cinematic roots of the film. I was also amused by the limos in the garage bantering back and forth before bedtime as they come to the realization they are all relics doomed to the scrapheap ("Old 5700-BC-78 is speaking the truth....") The film is a dreamlike circle of life movie with many intentional ambiguities (it is sometimes impossible to know if the characters are dead or alive) anchored by the theatrical trope that's the glue that holds the film together.
"Holy Motors" will be a very divisive love it or hate it movie. It is in your face and yet intensely subtle and is nearly impenetrable in a variety of ways. It is certainly not for the casual viewer, but if you love French cinema or you simply want to be challenged by a film that it alternately playful and morbid, it's definitely a film worth seeing.
It is certainly interesting as a piece of existentialist filmmaking that ruminates over how easy it is for people to become lost in the various "roles" they play as well as humanity's endless search for worth, meaning, and purpose. But there's just something about the execution of the film that didn't appeal to me. It had a very detached quality and although it showed me a lot of striking images, it failed to compel me intellectually or emotionally. It's hard to pinpoint why that may have been the case as abstract films like this have no rules and thus no clear recipe for success to follow. It was likely the combination of many things, though I feel chief among them was an overall lack of forward momentum or intrigue. The film is very fragmented and episodic by design, and I felt that while each "episode" was a mildly interesting vignette, the film didn't weave them together in a way that generated a sense of propulsion or growth towards a bigger picture. Yes, the existentialist musings of the film did become more apparent as it progressed and it didn't feel entirely directionless by any means, but I just didn't find that progression terribly compelling or satisfying as it was. Perhaps it'll click with me more on a future viewing should I decide to return to it.
Not a particularly complex film, but very dense with symbolism and film imagery and memes; this is a film that will probably leave you scratching your head and thinking "What did I just watch?" However, the lack of complexity is subjective; this film will be as complex or as simple as you decide it is, since it's interpretation is very much up to the observer.
Personally, I feel that the key to "understanding" it (if this is even necessary) is to realize who the person at the beginning of the film is; with that understanding, suddenly the whole film takes on a whole new meaning and became (for me, anyway) clearly understandable.
Your experience will almost certainly vary. Have fun with it! I did.
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