Review: Holy Motors

Holy Motors is Leos Carax's first feature-length film in over a decade and his first good one in more than two. It is the return of a disgruntled, frustrated master; a perplexing, provocative, mesmerising work.

It's a hate letter to cinema, weary yet playful, which makes the case for the glory of cinema more forcefully than most anything else seen this year. Alternately, it's just a two hours of fatuous silliness.

Firstly the recap: Carax emerged in the 1980s, lumped in with Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson as part of the supposed Cinema Du Look. Debuting at the age of 24, his films were visually stunning and haughtily insubstantial. Like Godard he was just too masterly to ignore, yet never quite entertaining. His third film Les Amants de Pont Neuf turned into France's Heaven's Gate, its wildly escalating budget overshadowing the considerable beauty of the actual film. Since then, almost nothing: just 1999's tedious Pola X and his sparkling contribution to the 2008 compendium film Tokyo, a giddy take on Godzilla, which is revisited here.


Now all those years of thwarted plans and ambitions are unleashed in Holy Motors. As we see Oscar (Denis Lavant) wave goodbye to his family in the morning and enter his chauffeur-driven limousine we assume he is a CEO. In fact, true to his name, he is the ultimate ham actor, driven around Paris to various impromptu performances. Lavant gets to play with an elaborate range of costumes, make-up and wigs like he's in an avant garde version of Mission Impossible.

The basic structure is not unlike Cosmopolis – a day spent with a man who works out of his limo and perceives his life to be in danger. But while Cronenberg's effects seemed tired and theatrical, Carax's invention is light and boundless. Holy Motors doesn't quite have the rich visual beauty of his early films but in their place is a sense of freedom. Anything could happen in the next scene. It may be his heaviest film but it also has a great sense of fun. Possibly the film is better during the daylight of the first half than after night falls but the final scene is magnificent.

Afterwards audiences can knock themselves out debating its allusions and references, its larger motives and meanings but while watching it has a simple through line to follow, a caustic parody of the business of cinema. Beyond that it seems to touch on all aspects of modern life. It is everything and nothing, throwaway and momentous.

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Director: Leos Carax

Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, Elise Lhomeau and Michel Piccoli

Length: 115 mins