Film review: Holy Motors

Heather Hampson
Out of the Gutter Online Film Reviewer

It's a tough day at the office for Monsieur Oscar, but this is no ordinary day job. Oscar's office is a stretch limo and his duties entail completing a series of pre-ordained assignments which range from dressing up as a hunch-backed beggar woman to being a motion-capture model porn star and all sorts in between.

If you've not heard the hype, serious critics, film theorists and cinephiles have been wetting themselves over Holy Motors since its triumphant première at Cannes. It is the art house equivalent of Avatar (in fact the motion-capture scenes sort of evoke that film).

The opening scene reflects ourselves as the audience - a packed cinema of spectators passively watching an unseen screen. The director, Louis Carax, wakes up in a hotel room, finds a magic hidden door in the wall and, passing through it, finds himself on the circle balcony of this cinema. Confused? We've only just begun...
We then meet Monsieur Oscar, who at first appears to be a high level banker, or possibly gangster, who boards the white limo chauffeured by the elegant-in-a-way-only-the-French-can-be Celine (Edith Scob). A car of bodyguards tails them. They drive off towards Paris and Celine informs him he has nine assignments to complete that day. Soon he is donning heavy make-up and a wig to become the old beggar woman. The limo is, in fact, like an actor's dressing room – a menagerie of wigs, prosthetic faces, costumes, stick-on beards.

He then becomes the motion capture model, and gets in some very twisted positions with a female equivalent. Then he is revolting sewer dweller, Monsieur Merde (Mr. Shit) who kidnaps a model (played by Eva Mendes) and cuts up her dress with his teeth to remodel it as a burka. Later on, amongst other things, Kylie Minogue sings and there are some chimps.

At times, it becomes unclear what exactly is an assignment and what is Oscar being himself. Roles slip into each other (he plays a feverish, dying uncle who repeats other character's' lines) and by the end Monsieur Oscar's identity has dissipated entirely.

So, it's a film about identity, and the roles a person has to play in their day to day lives? The other characters Oscar interacts with are participating in their own assignments, everyone seems trapped in a perpetual cycle of changing identities... Or is it an homage to actors and the demands on the body and mind that the profession requires? Oscar prepares for his assignments with weary resignation and after the motion capture 'sex scene' seems particularly demeaned. 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' a boss-type figure who boards the limo at one point says, 'but what if there is no beholder?' Oscar replies, and what is performance if there is no audience, as there is not for any of the roles Oscar plays?

Or is it a homage to cinema, as everything from Goddard's Breathless to Disney's Cars is referenced? Or is just Louis Carax's anarchic dream, after the hotel scene at the beginning?
Who is setting the assignments? And what the fuck is the burka thing about?

If you don't like films that 'ask questions' The Expendables 2 is out on DVD soon.  But don't let the art house tag put you off, Holy Motors may be somewhat baffling but it is blackly comic, surreal, unsettling, moving, sexy, sublime... the best film I have seen all year.