****/**** Image B Sound B- Extras B
starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue
written and directed by Leos Carax
by Angelo Muredda It's no great shock that Holy Motors is innovative, coming from the same headspace as The Lovers on the Bridge and Mauvais Sang--movies that seemed fashioned out of whole cloth despite their indebtedness to names like David Bowie and Herman Melville. What's most surprising is that beneath the formal variety and cheekiness, mainstays of Leos Carax's freewheeling cinema, is a moving and altogether serious exploration of what it means to be an actor, in both a professional and a metaphysical sense. Carax's films have been ranked among the boldest aesthetic manifestos since the 1980s for good reason, yet the ineffable quality that distinguishes them from the superficially similar grandstanding of nascent stylists like Xavier Dolan is their deep sincerity and unabashed adoration of the eccentric city-dwellers who cross paths on the loneliest roads in urban France. If Holy Motors is even wilder in presentation than its predecessors, then, it's also perfectly legible within a body of work that's always found a human streak in the avant-garde.
While all of Carax's films could be described as mad love letters to their fringe protagonists, here that affection flows largely through the actors embodying them. In Denis Lavant, the lithe, pug-faced trickster who's fronted all of the director's pictures save Pola X, Carax has found something rather more than either a star or a muse. Lavant ostensibly plays Oscar, a man who changes in and out of various costumes--and the identities they evoke--while being chauffeured around Paris in a white limousine by driver Celine (Edith Scob). But he's also Lavant, his distinctive face written into the film's DNA despite the cosmetic changes that mark his tour through a host of characters, ranging from a slick banker to a motion-capture performer in a suit straight out of The Running Man. For that matter, Scob is both the faithful driver and Scob herself, her storied career imprinted on her body and, in one great moment, externalized via a prop that points back to Eyes Without a Face. And Kylie Minogue is at once another tired actor whom Oscar's limo brushes against just before the working day is done and Kylie Minogue herself, her voice unmistakeable in her lone musical number, partly because it's slyly signposted earlier on as one of Oscar's personas hears "Can't Get You Out of My Head" wafting from a party.
So powerful are those enduring indexical traces of performers' past selves, particularly those reminders of the privileged relationship the camera has always had to the human face, that one is constantly thrown by the movie's protean structure, even though it unfolds more or less like clockwork. There's a trace of the anthology film's voracious indulgence in multiple genres in the way Oscar's assignments take him from playing a petty thug in a crime tragedy to an old man in a TV melodrama that Carax frames like late Bergman. Yet it's hard not to notice patterns across the performances, little signs that the people Oscar plays cannot be discarded as easily as a latex nose. "I think I caught a cold killing the banker," Oscar admits at one point, a throwaway line that's typical of the picture's offhanded delicacy, its knack for consistently locating the real pathos in its surreal premise. What could be more inappropriate or touching than a chameleon given away by his nagging cough?
Those eager to find an allegory for the death of cinema in these recurring nods to the authentic kernel that lies within even the most contrived performances will rightly note Carax's emphasis on the mechanics of Oscar's work--his reliance on the most lumbering and inelegant of motor vehicles to arrive at his many face-to-face encounters. That this is Carax's first digital feature is difficult to ignore. "Some don't believe what they're watching anymore," laments Oscar's spectral boss (Michel Piccoli), and it's hard not to take Oscar's rejoinder, that it's a challenge for an actor to believe in his performance when the cameras he acts before are "smaller than our heads" now, as a nostalgic ode to celluloid, may it rest in peace.
But the beauty of Holy Motors--and indeed, Oscar justifies his work on account of "the beauty of the act"--lies in its tempered stance between that nostalgia and a mild hopefulness for what's to come. Oscar isn't just yearning for performances past: Tired as he is, he's game to face whatever instruction comes down to him in his next manila envelope. Nowhere is that clearer than in his last two assignments, an old man's death-bed confessional and its immediate sequel--the sad, roaming duet with Minogue that proves his steps are still nimble even as his hair remains thinned and powdered white (like a rakish Jacques Derrida) from the previous performance. That pas de deux ends with a moment of grace that encapsulates the film's generous appraisal of Oscar's work, its falseness notwithstanding. Sneaking back to the limo after his character has just died in the arms of his niece, he pauses to ask the young woman her real name. "Thank you, Elise," he tells her, addressing not only the character who's just authentically mourned him but also the actress, actually named Elise Lhomeau, who's touched him with her performance. Carax extends the same courtesy to Lavant, and anyone struggling to get a grip on this slippery film would do well to start there.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers The leap from non-anamorphic PAL-to-NTSC DVD with a permanent, subtitles-obscuring watermark--which is how I first saw Holy Motors--to Blu-ray is so profound that I'm in a position to be more forgiving of Vivendi's BD release of Holy Motors. Unlike its European counterpart(s), as well as most Blu-rays manufactured after 2007, the disc utilizes an MPEG-2 codec, which was quickly recognized as being fine for broadcast but beneath the potential of next-gen media. Though it's likely the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer would have a little more snap with different/superior encoding (not to mention a broader bitrate, as the movie occupies a scant 14GB of a 25GB platter), I suspect a certain flatness of latitude, at least, is by design: It makes sense for Oscar to kind of float through a void. (What's more maddening is that the supplementary material is encoded in AVC/MPEG-4.) Holy Motors was shot with the Red Epic--chosen, if I'm parsing the special features correctly, for its compactness; the original idea was to use DV, as director Leos Carax and DP Caroline Champetier had on Tokyo!, so clarity may not have been their primary concern. Nevertheless, this is a handsome, almost classically-shot film by no means dishonoured by this basically glossy and well-compressed presentation. More disappointing is the lossy DD 5.1 track--it's fine, but the picture has a fairly hemispheric mix to start with, and it could sorely use the added depth of Master Audio.
Extras begin with "Drive In: The Making of Holy Motors" (47 mins., HD), which includes a lengthy Kylie Minogue interview somewhat gratuitously spun off into its own accompanying featurette (13 mins., HD). I guess she's a marketing hook? Champetier, Minogue, and actor Denis Lavant do most of the talking in the making-of, though Edith Scob says a few words and so does Carax, via onscreen text. (He reveals the inspiration behind Oscar's hunchbacked beggar.) While it's not the latchkey to the movie's riddles a viewer might wish for, it does have a European deliberateness to it that's a refreshing change of pace from flashy American EPKs, even if some comments border on press junket-worthy. (That it's hard to work with chimps isn't the most penetrating observation Lavant could've made about the scene in question.) Minogue, for her part, is luminous--is there an aging portrait of her rotting away in a basement somewhere?--and seemingly on the verge of tears at all times. She really responded to the role of Jean, originally written for Juliette Binoche in direct homage to Lovers on the Bridge. Domestic and international trailers for Holy Motors (both in 1080p) round out the BD, while a crapload of previews--for The Imposter, Wasted on the Young (hey neat, they cloned Michelle Williams), Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Life Without Principle, Luv, and Filly Brown--cue up on startup. For what it's worth, there's a substantial lagtime between pop-up menu screens.