Holy Motors

Holy Motors ★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

UPDATE/JANUARY 16, 2020: I was 20 years old when I posted this review. Since then, I've learned a lot more about cinema, made a few films myself, and aged seven years. I would not write a review like this today, though I must admit that I still find this one amusing. Carry on!

To say that Holy Motors has been praised would be the understatement of the century. It has been discussed and interpreted more than probably any other movie this year. Furthermore, seemingly every major critic loves it. It has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 84 on Metacritic, and my boy Film Crit Hulk placed it at the very top of his 2012 list, ahead of Django Unchained, The Master, Looper, and several other terrific titles. However, there's something none of those critics will tell you, and I'm here to give it to you straight: the key to understanding Holy Motors is knowing that Holy Motors SUCKS.

Now, before you prejudge this as another Cosmopolis-style "Dear Fuckers" letter, hear me out, because this will all make sense in a minute. Every plot synopsis I've read for Holy Motors shares some curious similarities. They all characterize the surface gist pretty much accurately, telling of a man named Monsieur Oscar who "journeys from one life to the next" (Rotten Tomatoes), portraying numerous characters over the course of a single day as some sort of dubious career choice. However, that doesn't really tell you anything, does it? It doesn't tell you what kind of person Oscar is, it doesn't tell you why or how he's been charged to live a life like this, and it doesn't tell you what the ultimate endgame in constantly altering his identity actually is, personally or professionally.

Another similarity I've noticed is that, after that quick summation, every synopsis immediately dips into existential quandaries and metaphorical implications. They will inevitably compare Oscar's methods to that of a skilled assassin; they will pose the question of "who Oscar really is," not in a literal sense but in the broad Philosophy 101 sense; and they will make some reference to the absence of cameras during Oscar's daily performances in an attempt to open up the discussion to the meaning and power of cinema, the way movies reflect real life and the questions of identity inherent in making that connection, the film vs. digital controversy and the rise of technology, and myriad other related subjects.

This sounds like great, thought-provoking stuff, right? I agree, it does! Which is why it saddens me to report that the discussion Holy Motors inspired is actually a thousand times more fascinating than Holy Motors itself is or ever will be. To put it simply, the movie is a chore to sit through, bouncing from scenario to scenario with no emotional anchor, no semblance of reality, no concern for actual storytelling, no true intellectual value (it's one thing to attempt to illustrate cinema's many possibilities, and it's another to actually explore them via character, dialogue, and inventive technique; just ask Bergman), and certainly no entertainment value. I admired Denis Lavant's dedication to this utterly thankless role. Caroline Champetier's cinematography certainly has its high points, especially during the "motion-capture suit" sequence, which happened to be the only part of the movie I actually liked. But Holy Motors is a failure in basically all other arenas, and you know what the funniest part is? When you read interviews with director Leos Carax, its failure begins to make all too much sense.

Now, that's not to say that Carax comes off as an arrogant or unintelligent person; in fact, I was pleased to find quite the opposite. At least as far as print interviews go, he seems very knowledgeable about film and film history, is very open and candid about his process, and is surprisingly quite humble. In particular, in his interview with Filmmaker Magazine, he speaks at length about the changing nature of cinema, the way it's made, and the way it works for audiences. However, it is KEY to note that he only discusses these subjects in response to the interviewer asking about them. Carax even goes so far as to state, "I mean, it’s not a film about cinema, or about digital. Who would go and see that, you know?" Based solely on this statement, one could immediately begin to question how valid critics' interpretations of Holy Motors really are. But maybe not. Films are viewed in ways beyond their makers' intentions all the time.

However, revealingly, Carax also notes, "I imagined this film, I think, in two weeks. I had never been so fast on the other projects." Additionally, he informed Indiewire that he "didn't watch [his] dailies" and "didn't read exactly what [he] was doing. [He] only went over it at the editing table." And, finally, he says, "Why did I imagine this science-fiction word? I did invent a genre that doesn't exist. But I don't have the real answers." Do these sound like the words of a man who had some grand, meticulously-designed and pre-visualized cinematic statement to make? Absolutely not.

And as for what Holy Motors is actually about, Carax has but this to say: "I really think of it as a film about the experience of being alive nowadays, alive in this world. We talk about this mutant world, so it’s not sad, it’s not tragic. Or, it is sad and tragic, but it’s also laughable and joyful in a way, if you’re lucky enough. But obviously, cinema is the language of the film." I had a difficult time following that thought process too, but we'll forgive Carax: he's in his 50's, and people ramble about high-minded ideas all the time, most especially when they're in their 50's. What this statement shines a big, bright light on, though, is that not only is he grasping at these big ideas in a way that is rarely stimulating and frequently boring, but that he's also been inundated with praise by a whole host of critics imposing their own meanings on his piece of art that was, if anything, pure in intention. That, to me, is the very definition of sad, tragic, and laughable. "Joyful" need not apply. Carax asked Indiewire, "Men talk about art, and artists make art, but should artists talk?" I don't know about everyone else, but in this instance, I am very, very glad that Carax got the chance to talk. Of his film's countless worshipers I am more skeptical. And, in short, Holy Motors just kind of sucks.

To close, I'll simply say this: Holy Motors is the only non-Pixar film I've ever seen that ends with fucking CARS fucking TALKING to each other. Ponder that and decide for yourself whether or not it's a film for you.

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