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As I prepared myself for the singular experience of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, I only knew that it was beloved and very weird. At first, information was hard to come by – the trailers were deliberately vague and the theatrical release was limited. I haven’t even seen another Carax film, so I lack even that context. Soon, though, I realized that perhaps this was the best way to experience the film and stopped pursuing further information.

 Holy Motors
The official ‘plot synopsis’ from US release studio, Indomina (who is trying their damndest to make anecdotal sense of the movie), is as follows:
Quote: From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man... He seems to be playing roles, plunging headlong into each part – but where are the cameras? Monsieur Oscar is alone, accompanied only by Céline (Edith Scob), the slender blonde woman behind the wheel of the vast engine that transports him through and around Paris. He's like a conscientious assassin moving from hit to hit. In pursuit of the beautiful gesture, the mysterious driving force, the women and the ghosts of past lives. But where is his true home, his family, his rest?

Holy Motors is surrealistic and abstract enough to be a movie about anything. It’s never clear what, precisely, Carax is trying to convey to his audience. Why does Oscar simulate sex on a motion capture soundstage? Why does he eat flowers? Does it matter? Do these sequences need to make sense or is the joy found in the unpredictable weirdness of the whole thing? Being the man I am, I assume Carax has made another movie about movies. Carax separates himself from the heavy field of referential films by approaching homage in his own uniquely eccentric manner. He’s not interested in spoofing the classics in a Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker fashion, nor is he interested in meticulously regenerating the feel of period, ala Michel Hazanavicius (The OSS 117 series, The Artist). He’s not really even interested in recreating his favourite scenes in a new context, like Scorsese or DePalma. The easiest comparison I can make is to the Kill Bill movies, where Tarantino tried to blend vignettes from his favourite exploitation classics into the context of his own story and mythology. But, action set-pieces aside, the Kill Bill movies still tend to have a solid, over-arching narrative crux. Carax pushes more for narrative disassociation with his episodic approach.

 Holy Motors
These vignettes don’t have much bearing on each other and represent sort of a series of mini-movies, each of which take a subversive, but loving approach to familiar genre material, as seen most clearly during the two musical sequences. The accordion-led interval teases the delightful absurdity of movie musicals while a later, more serious musical sequence, sung by Aussie pop superstar Kylie Minogue, entirely embraces the over-the-top emotional tropes of the exact same movies. Among the most endearing sections is the ‘Monsieur Merde’ sequence (a character that Wikipedia tells me appeared in Carax’s part of Tokyo). This vignette amusingly inverts popular gothic monsters, like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and includes music from Godzilla’s main theme. The more dramatic scenes, on the other hand, perhaps add too much weight to the anarchy. These are thematically consistent and sharply constructed, but stretch the concept and joke thin. The ‘Death Bed’ sequence in particular represents an oddly timed lead-in to a very funny punch-line (some may say at the expense of the audience) that deflates the pathos. The longest lead-up to a movie in-joke is absolutely worth the wait. Edith Scob, star of Georges Franju’s 1960 horror classic Eyes Without a Face (aka: Les yeux sans visage), parks the limo and covers her face with a placid, plastic mask and wanders like a ghost out of the garage. This brings up a chicken and egg argument, though – did Carax hire Scob with the joke in mind or did it develop as the film was shooting?

Carax’s imagery carries a comedically nihilistic comment on the artificiality of popular filmmaking. Death has no consequence, neither does family, sex, time, or geography. The fact that context has basically no consequence either will probably be the thing that puts off the most prospective viewers. Well, all of those not scared off by erect penises. However, the disjointed narrative should help keep the less susceptible audiences from watching past their discomfort. Most art films require something of a continued, concentrated effort on the part of an audience, but Holy Motors doesn’t fit the usual mould. It’s easy for me to compare Holy Motors to David Cronenberg’s 2012 release, Cosmopolis. Cronenberg’s film is more of a conceptual exploration of politics and almost an anti-film on some levels, but it also revolves around a character going about his impenetrably confusing business while being driven around town in a limousine. Both films are episodic in their approach, but Cronenberg demands a certain amount of attention for his complete narrative, which is intellectually exhausting, compared to Holy Motor’s ‘one-shot’ delivery, which offers more of an intellectual medley. If Cosmopolis is a free jazz or prog rock jam session, Holy Motors is a ‘70s punk rock concert. It’s okay if you don’t like the current song, because there’s another song coming around in just a few minutes that you might like more.

 Holy Motors

Video


Holy Motors was shot in digital HD using Red Epic cameras and is presented here in 1.85:1, 1080p video. For the most part, this is a strong transfer. Despite their use of state-of-the-art cameras with amazing detail abilities, Carax and cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape aren’t particularly concerned with hyper-sensitive textures and contrasts, opting for a smoother overall image. This isn’t to say the image is muddy or even flat – there’s just a bigger focus on building shapes out of blocks of colour, rather than fine lines. Patterns are plenty complex without bleeding, even in wide shots, and facial crags are well-defined in close-up. The colours are largely muted with green and gold tints and red pops (it seems Carax is snagging fellow Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s preferred palette). These hues don’t entirely define the look of the film, however, as there is plenty of reprieve from the base palette, including pops of pink, blue, and neon green. Much of the film is shot in low light, which is a problem, because the black levels can be weak, especially around the edges of the frame where they buzz with hints of green or blue noise. Black levels only look particularly good when surrounded by lighter contrasts. The soundstage sequence is created in a controlled enough atmosphere to maintain better purity of blacks, but, even here, the digital noise struck me as ‘unnatural.’ I’d be interested to know if the blacks were similarly noisy in theaters and understand if this issue was just the effect of the Red camera’s colour capabilities. Edge enhancement and major blocking effects aren’t really a problem (there’s merely a hint of blocking in some of the reds), though some of the out of focus background hues show banding effects.

 Holy Motors

Audio


So, remember back when Tartan released Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy under Vivendi and it replaced the original DTS-HD MA with a compressed Dolby Digital track? Yeah, that was a bummer. Well, it looks like it has happened again here – Holy Motors features only a lossy, Dolby Digital 5.1 track. I have no idea whose fault this is, though, as both Vivendi and Indomina’s more recent releases feature solid DTS-HD MA soundtracks (even while working together, which they do all the time). The UK release does feature a lossless track, for the record. The lossy qualities do make a difference in terms of overall volume levels – I did have to turn the receiver up to higher levels than I’m used to with a Blu-ray disc. Once the volume was set to the appropriate level the intent of the sound design appeared to come into shape with only some minor distortion in the louder, center channel dialogue to remind us that this track has been compressed. The sound mix is sometimes as experimental as the rest of the film. Things opens with Carax in a dry room as the noise of a ship port revolves throughout the stereo and surround channels (seagulls, rushing water, boat horns). Then, during the soundstage sequence, the impact of feet echoes with heavy reverb and harsh, stereo-spread breathing sounds that don’t really seem to be coming from either participant. Other scenes feature the most natural ambience, possibly to create contrast to the chaotic images. Music plays a big part in filling out the mostly largely quiet aural palette and often presents itself as a big, bouncy event. The warm strings are especially nice.

 Holy Motors

Extras


The extras begin with Drive In: Making Holy Motors (47:30, HD), a behind the scenes documentary that is shot and cut like an art film in its own right. The general story of the making-of the film is covered on a general level (pre-production, make-up, actors working together, developing characters, working with a chimp, music, special effects and other technical aspects) and mixed with cast and crew opinions on the film’s inspiration and metaphorical meanings. The interviews, which aren’t given much in the way of context include cinematographer Caroline Champetier, actresses Edith Scob and Kylie Minogue, and actor Denis Lavant, and are set against raw behind the scenes footage and on-screen text (meant to be the subtitles for a disembodied, indiscernible voice speaking through the stereo channels. Though he never really speaks for himself, Carax is seen throughout the footage, sitting quietly and allowing Champetier to do a lot of the oral direction. It’s also nice to know that the accordion sequence was caught mostly in-camera.

Also included is an additional interview with Minogue (very sweet, 13:20, HD), two trailers, and trailers for other Indomina releases.

 Holy Motors

Overall


I have an alternate theory on Holy Motors that doesn’t necessarily negate my previous assessment. It’s possible that Holy Motors is a companion piece to Last Action Hero or, more specifically, it takes place in the French part of the Last Action Hero universe, where movie conventions are less bombastic. At the very least the two films make a great double-feature. This incredibly challenging yet easy to love odyssey of weirdness is clearly not the most accessible movie on the new release shelf, but it’s worth the effort. This Blu-ray is a disappointment in the audio department, thanks to a compressed Dolby Digital soundtrack, but the 1080p video features only minor shortcomings and the extras include a full-bodied behind-the-scenes featurette.

 Holy Motors
 Holy Motors
 Holy Motors

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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