by Russell Hainline
When I first experienced Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s sprawling surrealist journey, part of me immediately lamented the fact that the year-end awards race was likely to ignore it. It’s unapologetically strange and purposefully fantastical, difficult to fully digest, much less describe to friends and family. This is the type of film that should receive the national recognition that the Academy Awards provide: it’s brave, honest, and enormously entertaining. Yet the more the idea marinated, the more Holy Motors seemed like the type of film the Oscars should absolutely embrace. It’s a movie about movies, attempting to reveal something about both the art of storytelling and the struggle between the old school film aficionados and the digital age. It contains scenes of uproarious comedy and immense sadness, running the gamut of emotions during its two-hour run time. Most notable of all, it features the bravest leading male performance in years– Denis Lavant plays eleven credited roles and is asked to portray acts of weirdness that would send most actors running for the hills, all while maintaining a sense of deeply affecting melancholy. You haven’t seen a film like Holy Motors before. So why not reward it for its shocking display of perfectly executed originality?
At film’s beginning, we see a man, played by Carax himself, wake from his sleep to the sounds of seagulls and a foghorn. He searches along his walls, then using a key that has suddenly manifested itself on his finger, he opens the walls to walk down a corridor leading him to the balcony of a movie house. Or is he still dreaming? Is the cinema his personal Maltese Falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of? We never come back to this room, cutting immediately to a wealthy man in Paris leaving home to go to work for the day. This is Monsieur Oscar, the root of Denis Lavant’s characters. He hops into a limousine and heads off to work, where his driver informs him he has nine appointments today. We gather from security guards surrounding the limo and a phone conversation Oscar has about needing to carry guns that this line of employment carries with it some inherent danger. Due to his wealth, I immediately thought he was perhaps some sort of banker or CEO, and we were preparing for some type of statement on these troubled economic times… how foolish I was to attempt to predict where Carax was taking me.
Oscar wheels around a giant makeup mirror inside his limo, opens up large boxes of costumes, wigs, and prosthetics, and proceeds to transform himself into an old beggar woman. He stands in a crowded block in Paris, begging for money. “Nobody loves me, nowhere… but I’m alive anyway,” the old beggar woman mutters to herself. We watch as a lady passing by pauses, never looking at the old beggar woman—she hesitates for a moment, as if to consider giving some money, before continuing forward. We then see Oscar manifest a number of other characters over the rest of the film. He dons a motion-capture suit and engages in sexual behavior with a woman, and we see the digital characters created from their likenesses, grotesque demonic figures with exaggerated sexual organs thrusting and penetrating.
He adorns a beard, long fingernails, and a white contact lens as Merde (translated to “Shit”), a vile flower-eating troll of chaos, who stumbles upon a supermodel’s photoshoot and proceeds to bite off a woman’s fingers, lick Eva Mendes’ armpit, and stand before her in a cave sporting a full erection—how many actors can you imagine with the bravery to fully commit to this kind of behavior? Denis Lavant is engrossing at every turn, asked to perform the widest variety of acts I’ve seen an actor do in recent memory, yet despite losing himself in each character and absorbing us into the world of each respective “appointment,” there is a tonal consistency to his performance at every turn. He can switch from deadpan comedy to heartbreak in the blink of an eye. Before running out into the world as Merde, he tucks a napkin in as a bib and eats noodles, managing to handle chopsticks flawlessly despite his long fingernails. He asks his driver whether there will be any appointments in the forest this week, and when she says no, he looks out the window and mutters sadly, “Too bad. I miss forests.” This quasi-non-sequitur, further establishing Oscar as an old world man attempting to conform to a digital new age, is mysteriously affecting in the hands of Lavant. Each moment is a home run in his hands.
Admittedly, it is nearly impossible to imagine Holy Motors garnering the necessary Academy support to break into the Best Picture race—but why not Denis Lavant for Best Actor? The field is crowded, but much of his competition looks familiar: we’ve seen the Academy reward actors for playing alcoholics, for playing the infirmed, for playing mental disorders. It’s difficult to imagine any actor sitting down to watch Holy Motors, even if it’s not their cup of tea, without being blown away by the task at hand facing Denis Lavant. From the genre shifts to the line delivery to the overwhelming physical nature of the role, it’s the type of performance that would be easy to rally behind. An unconventional-looking character actor in the Best Actor field, next to such lookers as Daniel Day-Lewis and Hugh Jackman? A clip package airing during the ceremony including a troll munching ravenously upon Eva Mendes’ hair? What’s not to love? It would serve to remind the audience that the Academy still has some edge and is willing to support bold ambition in addition to the traditional awards-season fare.
If Best Actor is asking too much… how about a nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling? This is a film about makeup! We watch on screen the art of makeup application, as Oscar applies mustaches and beards, as he creates scars, and as he carefully slips wigs onto his bald head. Every character is perfectly realized, and we are absorbed into their storyline, despite having just watched the actor transform himself into that character before our very eyes. Isn’t that what makeup is all about: the art of transforming the appearance of the actor without distracting from the story at hand? There are flashier entries into the category this year from other films, but many of them draw attention: you’re never not aware that you’re watching Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit or Hugh Grant in old age makeup. In Holy Motors, the makeup draws attention, but it’s through the narrative, since its application is an integral part of the story. Wouldn’t it be outstanding to not only see a nomination for the little underdog foreign film, but for a film rooted in the category’s art form?
Regardless of where it would be nominated in a just world, the most important thing is to get this film seen. I spoke to an actor yesterday who hadn’t even heard of it, and all I could think was how blown away someone within the industry would be by this celebration of the joys and fears of filmmaking. In one sequence, Lavant plays a father of a young girl who went to her first party in Paris. He finds out that she was hiding in the bathroom the whole time, and he scolds her for not trying to mingle with the rest of the kids. She professes that the others don’t find her attractive—he believes she’s not easy-going enough, she’s not letting the others give her a chance. It’s about the war within one’s self as an artist and a human being: do I try to adjust to make myself more palatable to the tastes of the masses, or do I embrace who I am even if it means existing on the lonely fringe of society?
The heart-sinking melancholy of this scene is immediately followed by an Entr’acte, in which Levant, stripped of all makeup, plays an accordion while walking around an empty building. Soon after, dozens more with instruments join him, walking about the premises, rocking out together. It’s pure celebration with a twinge of protest: the unconventional, the old-school, and the flat-out weird are resolutely here to stay. Thank God that they are. Denis Lavant, Leos Carax, and Holy Motors may never be able to mingle with the rest of the kids at the party—something as universal as the Academy Awards will likely never come knocking at their door. Yet here is a chance for the critics groups, the voting bodies, and ultimately the Academy to reward such bravery of vision and to encourage other artists to take frightening risks. The more nominations or wins a film like Holy Motors can garner, the larger its audience will grow… and it deserves the largest audience possible.
In the last scene, some unexpected characters lament that they will likely be left behind for something sleeker, something newer, something more attractive. A nomination or win for Holy Motors in any category will help ensure that cinematic experiences as marvelous as Holy Motors will never be considered passé.
For your consideration:
Best Picture- Holy Motors
Best Actor- Denis Lavant
Best Director- Leos Carax
Best Original Screenplay- Leos Carax
Best Makeup and Hairstyling- Bernard Floch
Follow Russell on Twitter and check out his blog.