How do you even begin to review Holy Motors, the latest craze at the annual offering of pretention and genius that is the Cannes film festival. It is probably the most bizarre film I have ever seen; more so than 2001: A Space Odyssey, more than Mulholland Drive, more than entire filmography of Luis Bunuel, all of which are clear cinematic influences on this movie.
Why is this? To offer as close to a plot description as this film will allow, Denis Lavant plays Mr Oscar, who takes on “assignments” to in effect act out the lives of particular people, while being driven around Paris in a white limousine. Along the way, he will be married to a chimpanzee, become an assassin and dress up as a Goblin to kidnap Eve Mendes, drag her to a cave and dress her in a burqa, only to have her sing him a lullaby. Is this some kind of political satire? Some kind of meditation on the fake roles (post)modern society forces us to inhabit? A concerted meditation on the process of filmmaking itself? The director’s bad acid trip? I don’t know. I left any attempt of a logical analysis of this film behind around the moment the main character donned black lycra to motion capture a tantric demon sex scene.
The film is impeccably shot, movingly acted and one of the most daringly original films of the decade. It is a type of filmmaking considered risky and unpopular, and for this reason very admirable. Then why have I not scored it higher? Mainly because the film’s attempts to shock and bewilder the audience eventually turn from the sublime to the ridiculous, while the film fails to build any true empathy for its characters.
One of the reasons Mulholland Drive succeeds is that when you peel back the bizarre, labyrinthine and dreamlike plot, there is a tragic and tender emotional core to the relationship between it’s two main characters. Oscar is apparently alienated from his ex-wife, his daughter and his work, but none of these relationships are developed to any real depth. A few stilted monologues towards the end on the nature of identity, pulled straight out of an existentialism 101 lecture can’t redeem this. Nor do the films allusions to its influences rise above mere filmmaking pretension.
Hey, there’s a white haired man lying in a bed mirroring the same scene from 2001. There’s Edith Scob donning a mask in imitation of her role in the classic French horror Eyes Without a Face. All very clever, and cinephiles can pat themselves on the back for getting the references, but they don’t add any emotional or philosophical weight to the film, and the films self referential delight at being ‘so meta’ never rises above mere pretension.