director Leos Carax
What is avant-garde nowadays? What once referenced the frontal forces pushing culture beyond its standards… Is there any cinema truly avant-garde anymore? Perhaps like the term “unique”, it’s something that has faded in its purest essence and come to be useful in this day and age as something to be appreciated in degrees. I believe that there are degrees of uniqueness. And perhaps there are degrees of “avant-garde”. I guess that it would be true to say that in using these terms in this way, it diminishes by degrees those things that are truly unique and those things that truly acted as cultural vanguards. But again, maybe that is just where we live in the present era.
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is most certainly outside of the norm for a film. It’s surreal, episodic, and bizarre. Comparatively avant-garde. It’s certainly far from the norm.
A man in a limousine is trekked around Paris and he transforms himself to play in a variety of roles at a set of appointments throughout the day. The man is Denis Lavant and the artistry of his make-up, which he applies and removes between appointments extenuates his depiction as “an actor”. Some of the vignettes are shorter than others, but the physical performances and transformations by Lavant are quite impressive. While his first appointment is as an old beggar woman, his roles become more cinematic or perhaps more genre-specific. The film opens in a mysterious sequence in which a man awakens in a room and finds a secret passage into a cinema. So the question becomes: is this commentary on cinema? on acting? on Parisian life? On roles in society?
The film’s tone is largely impish, though several sequences transcend into their own mini universes, some more profoundly than others. In one sequence, he is a red-headed hunchback who captures Eva Mendes from a photoshoot. Another he performs in a motion-capture suit, dazzling with physical feats in a darkened room. Another he meets a fellow actor (Kylie Minogue) who is also traveling Paris by limo. Is their interaction also a performance? She breaks into song, though this was an unscheduled stop.
Holy Motors made a lot of “best of” lists last year. And it is quite remarkable in many ways. Lavant is wonderfully chameleon-like in his transformations, and some pieces of the film seem to touch upon great fantasy. I liked the movie. I liked it quite well. And I can kind of tell it’s going to be one of those films that sits in my brain for a long while as I come to a better sense of it overall.