Absurd is the word. Infuriatingly awful, this is possibly the worst film you’ll ever see. Or for a tiny minority, one of the best. Its Twilight Zone premise is intriguing but the astounding oddity of Holy Motors makes Terrence Malick’s meandering Tree of Life look like a bathtime book for baby.
Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets into his chauffeur driven limousine-cum-dressing-room and transforms himself, by turns, into a series of personas without rhyme or reason. An old lady begging on the street. A green-screen artist for a martial arts and porn video. A sewer rat, Monsieur Merde. An assassin whose victim looks like himself. A dying old man - for a stranger to grieve over. And so on until it’s time for bed and the film finally makes monkeys of us all.
Mysteries abound. Who’s Monsieur Oscar? Who’s sending his instructions? Are the people he meets clients or victims? Is this a joke or a tragedy? And then the real mysteries begin. Why did Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes sign up for cameos? Why did I give up two hours of my life? Would eating my knuckles stop the pain? Should I walk out?
Portmanteau movies can work. Paris je t’aime did. So too Jim Jarmusch’s winsome Night on Earth. Even Malick’s Tree of Life had a stream of consciousness flowing through it. But Holy Motors revs its engine and takes a very different road. As if Ionesco’s theatre of the absurd just wasn’t kooky enough.
To be generous, Holy Motors is beautifully filmed, making evocative use of the Parisian locations. Pere Lachaise Cemetery, charmingly macabre, is vividly shot. Ghostly interiors of the landmark Samaritaine department store are eerily affecting.
And you can surmise that director Leos Carax (Les Amants Du Pont Neuf) is riffing on the concepts of identity, role-playing and Freudian sub-currents. But really, like Monsieur Oscar himself, you’re being taken for a ride.
Oscar’s Monsieur Merde pops up in Pere Lachaise, bites off the fingers of a press-pack person, kidnaps a fashion model (Eve Mendes) and whisks her to a subterranean passage. There, sporting an erection and not much else, he has his way with her. But not the way you’d think.
Kylie Minogue wanders through the Samaritaine, singing a song, before ending on a low note. A man (the director in fact) wakes up in a strange bedroom, can’t find his way out, hammers through the walls and finds himself in an airport, stepping onto a runway. It’s that kind of film.
Excruciating, cruel, funny, tender and tedious. Soul-sappingly tedious. An existential crisis of a movie, Holy Motors wastes a wonderful premise on gratuitously oddball vignettes. To be blown away by its brilliance must be a wonderful thing. For the rest of us, we long for Ionesco’s charging rhinoceros to burst through the screen and stomp us to death. It would be a mercy.