Published Aug 09, 2013In its opening, Leos Carax's overly nostalgic and predominantly referential Holy Motors features the emaciated director emerging from a bed and opening a secret door amidst a forest mural that leads to a balcony above a theatre. A toddler and dog wander the aisles as a passive audience watches the larger-than-life screen in front of them, experiencing something magical and otherworldly.
Soon after a panther enters the scene, suggesting some sort of threat is looming over the cinema, which is when Carax sets out to see the forest for the trees (quite literally) by injecting character actor Denis Lavant into a series of short vignettes that reference and borrow from many European films, such as Eyes Without a Face, Max Mon Amour and Carax's own Lovers on a Bridge.
Rather than simply recreating the mystery and intrigue from the many films and different genres throughout the years that romanticize celluloid, Carax attempts to create an ersatz-artistic narrative and resulting didactic from them.
By having Lavant travel in a limousine — a large, clunky, dying relic, much like the cameras of classic cinema — from appointment to appointment, jumping into different characters, growing increasingly tired, he comments on the dying nature of film and indulges in the excitement of cinematic greatness. Lavant even remarks upon this overt message, reiterating his disappointment in the digitalization and microscopic nature of cameras, where everyone is performing for an increasingly dwindling audience. And while the oblique nature of a story that jumps between styles and dotes on the versatility of Lavant, whose chameleon-like transformations from subterranean being to emotionally abusive father to street thug is fascinating to watch, Carax's message is somewhat debatable and almost petulant.
When sound changed the landscape of cinema decades ago, those close to the medium similarly balked at the idea, certain it would ruin the wonder of everything magical about the moving image. And while there is concern over the changing landscape of cinema and the nature of digital media — where anyone can be a YouTube star with absolutely no effort or skill — it's somewhat regressive and dismissive to presume that it's entirely bad.
Of course, the pre-occupation with nostalgia that Holy Motors demonstrates is ultimately indicative of an inability to cope with the present, or world, that insists on growing beyond those trapped in an ideal. Still, it's a wonder to behold an experimental film of this nature, and watching Eva Mendes keep a straight face while Lavant writhes around next to her, fully nude with a prosthetic erection, is quite entertaining.
Holy Motors screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Modern Love: The Films of Leos Carax retrospective on Saturday, August 10th, 2013 at 9:15pm. Leos Carax will be in attendance for a Q&A following the film. (Mongrel Media)