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Cannes Review: Leos Carax's 'Holy Motors' Is An Anything Goes Stew Of Big Ideas That Doesn't Always Work

Reviews
by Kevin Jagernauth
May 24, 2012 6:04 PM
15 Comments
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Hilarious and dull, fascinating and pretentious, there is no doubt that Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" is memorable. Whether it's actually any good is up for debate. Bold and confounding in equal measure, Carax's first feature in over a decade is less a movie than a collection of sketches about the making of movies, inspired by a handful of projects Carax has tried to realize over the years but which never came together. Carrying a contemptuousness and cynicism about the current state of cinema -- "All of it made possible by digital cameras, which I despise" Carax says in the press notes of the film -- the helmer both gazes outwards and look inwards in an ultimately sloppy and tremendously bonkers screed.

Carax himself opens the movie, waking up in bed with his index finger turning into a key which opens a door hidden in the wall of his room that opens into a concert hall. And that's about as normal as it gets for the rest of the film's running time. Motion capture/latex-suited sex, Eva Mendes' armpit being licked by a bloody mouth, talking limousines and a musical interlude by Kylie Minogue are among the images and moments that will be seared into your brain, but the film isn't quite the lightweight lark that makes it sound. Carax is attempting (mostly unsuccessfully) to explore a variety of genres, while pissing on the conventions of them at the same time. He's also referencing his own movie career, film history, and god knows what else, in a movie that throws a lot against the wall, hoping that some of it will stick. There's a saying that goes those who can't teach, teach gym. And in this, those who can't get their movie made, sneer at those who can instead. There is a bitter feeling throughout that is hard to shake off, despite stabs at more elegant and romantic sequences.

Leading us through the film is Monsieur Oscar, whose very name seems to be a swipe at the awards-driven segment of the moviemaking culture, as well as a sly reference to the director's real first two names Alex Oscar (of which Leos Carax is an anagram). Anyway, he spends 24 hours being driven around in a white limo by Edith Scob, emerging as a new character in a new story at each stop, with Denis Levant going for broke in eleven wildly different roles in what is surely the performance of his career. He's utterly fantastic, and you just wish the rest of the picture were up to the work he brings to the table.

There is certainly no denying that Carax is brimming with ideas to share from his twelve year absence, but that doesn't mean they are all good or reasoned. Nor will they be completely understood by most viewers (which isn't necessarily a criticism, but should be noted particularly by those reading over-the-top raves for the pic). When Lavant's Merde (reprised from "Toyko!") eats a handful of money as if it were a bag of chips, the film takes on the tone of a project made by a first year college student who is making Very Important Art That Says Something. However, "Holy Motors" is most effective when it takes a more subtle tack, examining the artifice of moviemaking and trying to work through the notion of creating real art and emotion in an entirely contrived environment. Even Carax's choices of genres to tackle -- which include everything from CGI animation to musicals to death dramas to "Before Sunrise"-style romances -- lead to some interesting places. Meanwhile, other moments -- such as Merde napping on Eva Mendes lap, naked, with a giant erection, are shruggingly provocative. We'd be more interested if Carax had recorded the phone call he made to Mendes' people about the part -- that would've been far more fascinating, and would have actually fallen in line with much of the thematic arc of the picture.

"Holy Motors" is ultimately a difficult movie to pin down or assess properly. It is no doubt the work of an energized filmmaker (unlike Bernardo Bertolucci who returned after nine years with the tepid "Me And You") and that can be exciting, and the film is brilliant in small flashes. But it is also wildly uneven, obtuse, and sophomoric. We've heard comparisons tossed around to David Lynch, but what Carax is missing is that even with Lynch's seemingly surreal and random approach, there is (generally) a clarity of focus that guides his pictures. "Holy Motors" requires the viewer to bring their own mood and mind, and that's fine, but it more often than not fails to make peeling back the layers all that satisfying. It's definitely the most distinct work that will play the Cannes Film Festival by any stretch, but many have mistaken that for the best. Carax has created a church to his loves, concerns, woes and spite for moviemaking all in equal measure, but worshipping there won't necessarily lead to cinematic salvation. [C or more accurately WTF]

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More: Holy Motors, Review, Cannes Film Festival

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15 Comments

  • addu | February 4, 2014 1:19 PMReply

    Couldn't agree more. Carax is the French James Franco.

  • Milla | September 12, 2012 3:39 AMReply

    Saw this recently and I have to say I absolutely loved it. If you like to be surprised and love tragic/comedic stories performed by the VERY talented Denise Lavant and a great supporting cast esp the gorgeous Edith Scob, if you love movies that push the envelope of imagination without being pretentious, this is your movie. It was funny, touching, wacky and beautiful. Go see it!

  • Brigitte | August 6, 2012 1:03 AMReply

    I didn't enjoy this film either and I'm glad to have found this review--at least someone has the guts to stand up & say they didn't think it was all that great. I'm all for wacko films but this one left me cold. A good, balanced, and ultimately honest review. Well done.

  • Nik Grape | May 25, 2012 2:57 PMReply

    I'm sorry to read that you didn't like it Kevin. Holy Motors is getting an incredible amount of buzz and this is, I think, the first really negative review I read. As a big Carax fan, the only positive thing I can take from this is that the movie is open to interpretation and creates a unique spark with each audience member (much like Post Tenebras Lux I imagine) so a negative review like this simply means the spark it made with you personally was insignificant.

  • Petit | May 25, 2012 12:02 AMReply

    This is what happens to american critics that get wasted
    drinking cheap drinks at the petit majestic.

    They get sloppy and eventually fall into vertigo.
    Any strong emotion is too much for the head of the
    too tired young man. All they want is to go back home.

    Maybe this is not Kevin's case but the sindrome happens over and over.

  • Kevin | May 25, 2012 9:52 AM

    I'm not American, and didn't go to any parties at Cannes so.....

  • kindred spirit | May 24, 2012 9:00 PMReply

    Anything with Eva Mendes in it is destined to be awful or so bad it's good.

  • Lizzie | May 25, 2012 7:45 PM

    D- your comment is also stupid. As is my own.

  • d | May 24, 2012 9:04 PM

    That's a stupid comment.

  • SAd | May 24, 2012 7:38 PMReply

    This is what we end having.
    Critics that made it two or three times at a European festival
    and now they are over art.
    A liberal Website supporting
    avengers and dizzying challenging work.

  • Cde. | May 24, 2012 8:49 PM

    The Playlist has always been pretty mainstream. They spill a ton of ink over Hollywood blockbusters.

  • Mr Anonymous | May 24, 2012 6:57 PMReply

    Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! :D

    (Drew over at HitFix LOVED this film!)

  • Michael | May 24, 2012 6:21 PMReply

    Stop giving middling grades to ambitious films. First it was Like Someone in Love, then it was Post Tenebras Lux, now Holy Motors too? Do you guys like being challenged at all? You can't treat every film like there's some objective measure of perfection that they're failing to attain. In fact one of the most freeing things about cinema is that it doesn't have to "be" anything. There are no standards. It's whatever the artists want it to be (something, going by what others reviews I've read, that Carax is directly engaged in exploring). For all the complaining you guys do about Battleship and other such commercially-minded films, you seem to get awfully lost when three-act structures are abandoned. "welp that was weird" isn't an adequate response to internationally-esteemed entries in the world's foremost film festival, no matter how experimental they get.

  • IB | May 25, 2012 9:40 AM

    you sound like the highbrow equivalent of a drooling superhero film comments-section fanboytroll.

  • Kevin | May 24, 2012 7:03 PM

    Just because you drop a three-act structure or try something different/ambitious doesn't give you a pass either. Fwiw, I loved "Certified Copy" and it's a much better film than the reheated "Like Someone In Love." And the "It's whatever you want it to be!" argument is pretty weak. Either he has something to say or he doesn't. And Carax does, it's just not very interesting for the most part.

    As for "Post Tenebras Lux," we're not the only ones who didn't like it either.

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