Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Holy Motors (2012)

We reach the end of our journey through film with Leos Carax’s magnificent variation on Mr Benn. Or something.

Wed, Jun 4, 2014, 21:28


Well, well, well. This has been fun. Ten months ago, we set out to trace the history of the last half century by selecting one film from each year. We began with Joseph Losey’s Servant in 1963. We end, in 2012, with Leos Carax’s extraordinary Holy Motors. We will save analysis of the list for a longer post this weekend and, if you’re lucky, we may add a bonus film for 2013. What will it be? Feel free to offer suggestions.

I approached the Cannes screening of Carax’s most recent film with a cats-arse mouth and angrily folded arms. If there was one fake movement that I hate above all others it is the Cinéma du look. As far as I am concerned, you can shove your Diva and your Subway. If I want empty style I’ll watch a perfume commercial. To be fair, Carax was always a more interesting character than either Luc Besson or Jean-Jacques Beineix. There was a kind of anarchic genius to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but that film still struck me as overblown, vulgar and unfocussed. Pola X I preferred, but even Carax’s biggest fans would admit that it didn’t quite come off.

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Sacre Bleu! By the end of Holy Motors, I was quite happy to join in with the whooping and hollering — louder than any I’ve heard before or since at Cannes — that swept throughout the Salle Debussy. The film is eccentric, funny, disgraceful, romantic, horrible and, ultimately, surprisingly moving. An extraordinary Denis Lavant stars as… well, what exactly? A host of different characters who live very different lives in, about and beneath Paris, perhaps? More likely, he plays one man who takes on the personae of various assorted oddballs, maniacs, ordinary Joes and sacred monsters. The man travels about in a limousine that, we later learn, emerges from a company that shares the title of the film. He steps out, engages in adventure and then steps back in again. It seems unlikely that Carax is referencing Mr Benn, but you never know.

What larks our hero has. In the guise of Monsieur Merde, he kidnaps a beautiful woman and — a little bit Phantom of the Opera, a little bit Quasimodo — takes her to a secret place and pets her like a dog. He becomes a Chinese gangster. Later, he seems to die while a woman mourns beside his bed.

Holy Motors is not quite a portmanteau film. There is, despite the episodic structure, a sense of movement and continuity to the project. We feel we are going somewhere. One of the places we are going is to the roof of the famous Samaritaine Building where the protagonist sings a lovely Neil Hannon song with Kylie Minogue. That sequence looks like an obvious nod to the great musicals of Jacques Demi and much of the film is taken up with celebrations of cinema. It’s all here. At one stage, staying right up to date, the main character arrives at a motion-capture studio and helps generate footage for a strange fantasy film. Elsewhere, a lonely monkey points towards Nagisa Oshima’s Max Mon Amour (that’s my theory, anyway).

So, there is much to digest in here. One could see Holy Motors as a work of surrealism. Certainly, the transitions only make sense in the dreamworld. Still, there are moments of pure, unfiltered emotion buried within many of the individual sequences. The hero of the film carries a great deal of sadness about with him: he loves, he dies, he lusts insanely.

At the end, however, Carax gives in to total absurdity and delivers a sequence that is as funny and as silly as anything in The Goodies. It had been 13 years since Carax’s last film and those of us who had been wary felt a little guilty for under-appreciating him. After all, he ended up giving this series a perfect conclusion. What could be more suitable for a journey through film than a film that makes its own mad trek through the medium. Don’t stay away so long next time, Leos.

For 2012 we also considered The Turin Horse, The Master, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Elena, Berberian Sound Studio, Looper and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Heck, that was another damn fine year.