Sunday, March 17, 2013

I Don't Completely Understand Holy Motors (And That's Okay!)

Even before I started this blog, I always consumed any piece of pop culture -- film in particular -- with an idea of how I'd write a review of it.  Personally, I find that formulating a review in your head, even if you never write it, is helpful when trying to nail down exactly why you like or dislike something.  When I am actually planning on writing a review of something, I try not to read other reviews of it beforehand.  The reason for this is that I enjoy feeling like I came up with an idea on my own, so if I read a review where the same point is made and then I write a review saying the same thing, it doesn't feel as satisfying.  A second, more minor, reason is that there's a good chance that the review I read will bring up something that I hadn't even thought of and it'll shame me out of even wanting to write the review.

When Holy Motors first premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, it was met with awe and adulation.  During the festival and in the subsequent months afterward, I heard it being described as a "genre-bending masterpiece" and some people would say things like "I have no idea what went on in the movie, but I loved it!"  Whenever somebody on the internet would shoot the movie down, saying that it was pretentious dreck that made no sense, I'd always see somebody scoff and talk about how that person "just didn't get it."  Clearly, as I eagerly anticipated the DVD release, there was a great deal riding on liking and "getting" the film.  So it was particularly daunting to have my "no reading reviews" policy on this one.  What if I didn't get it?  What if somebody read my clueless review and angrily thought "this dolt doesn't see that the film is obviously about the debt ceiling and why Obama is a terrorist?!"

Well I finally watched Holy Motors earlier tonight and I can't say that I have a concrete interpretation of this loopy French flick.  Even still, I came away from the film being thrilled by what I just saw.  I was so satisfied that I'm even happy with not offering any interpretations of it.  However, this blog post would be pretty boring if I didn't, so here goes nothing...

Interpretation #1: Holy Motors is Meaningless
"Meaningless."  Film enthusiasts tend to cringe at that word.  It threatens everything that defines them and their active viewing in search of a theme or universal truth.  What they often don't realize is that a meaningless film is not the same as an empty film.  Holy Motors may very well be a meaningless film, but it is so full -- full of surprise, full of wonder, full of genuine beauty.  The scattered nature of the film could be evidence to the fact that the film has no real meaning.  It's a film that features random musical interludes, scenes that constantly pull back the layer of reality, a CGI sex scene, etc.  Surely, there's no way that all of those bizarre elements can make up anything more than a collection of scenes that have nothing to do with each other, right?  Even if that is so, that doesn't take away from how fascinating each individual scene is.  Oddly enough, the first vignette that really made me sit up and pay attention was the one that ended in the CGI sex scene (which is really the closest way I could describe what actually happens).  The entire thing is at once mesmerizing and perplexing.  You find yourself wondering what is going on and why it's happening but impressed by the sheer beauty and strangeness of it all.

Interpretation #2: Holy Motors is a Meditation on the State of Film
One of the few through-lines of the film is Mr. Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, a man who is constantly changing his appearance in each scene with the help of wigs and makeup.  Somehow, it's almost as if he's inhabiting completely different people whose lives have nothing to do with any of the others.  In one scene he's pretending to be a homeless woman on the street, in the next he's a father picking up his daughter from a party and scolding her.  With every wardrobe change and wig removal, the film is continuously telling you that what you are seeing is not real, yet each story is so compelling that you completely forget for the first handful of times that the rug is about to be pulled from under you.  This idea of inhabiting a role and creating an illusion for the audience is eerily similar to the concept of acting.  The peculiar van that Mr. Oscar travels around in is filled with props that make it look like the inside of a wardrobe department.  It even has one of those mirrors with the lights around it that we see in actors' trailers.  Throughout the film's elliptical narrative, there are occasional bits of dialogue about "people no longer buying the act" and cameras becoming so small that they are almost nonexistent, that seem like a lamentation of the change of film as an art form.  Coupled with the fact that this is Carax's first feature film since 1999, it's hard not to see how this film could be an elegy for his career.

Interpretation #3: Holy Motors is About Death, Man!
Perhaps Holy Motors has an even broader scope and is explicitly about what all art is implicitly about in one way or another -- our headlong race toward the grips of death.  Early into viewing the film, I was struck by the idea that it was about conveying the entire spectrum of humanity.  There is such a diversity in the people Mr. Oscar plays that it can be read that it's life flashing before your eyes and seeing the world for what it is, whether it be full of people deranged or somber or content.  The song near the end of the film, a moving French dirge about reliving life and experiencing both joy and pain all over again, backs this theory pretty strongly.  Even the way that the vignettes are at first quicker and more extreme before settling into longer, more solemn ones feels like the slowing of age.  Death seems to be a recurring feature of each of the little stories in Holy Motors.  Illness is frequently mentioned, Mr. Oscar plays a dying man in one "role" and a murderer in another, and he even encounters a woman living out her last day.  The final scene, which is too brilliant to spoil, is all about the innate fear of fading away.

So I don't what Leos Carax really had in mind when he was making Holy Motors, but the film left me with an unease that I still haven't shaken.  Now I'm off to the rest of the internet to see how wrong I am...

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