The plot is hard to pin down, in a good way. The best explanation, without saying too much, is that it's a series of mini-movies. One features a creepy leprechaun-type person hopping around a cemetery, another bursts into a very manufactured Kylie Minogue performance that ends with the kicking of a mannequin head. There's parental disappointment and simulated motion-capture sex.
It should be unintelligible, and it kinda is. But there's something about a director who tells his story with confidence and a clear vision, who paces properly and ensures that all his scenes have the same style, the same uncertain tone underneath, that can magically tie a film together thematically. I've never seen any other films by Leos Carax; I didn't even know who he was until 12 hours ago. But I'm blown away by his ability to entwine a series of seemingly unrelated scenes and make them flow so wonderfully.
To create a movie this bizarre, you need the perfect actor. Someone who fully grasps what you're trying to do, who buys into the insanity and throws himself (or herself) into a role. Or in this case, six or seven. Denis Lavant is that person. Oh, he's that and more. He'll never win Best Actor or any kind of serious awards, but you may never see a better performance. He's a goddamn chameleon, and you'll spend the whole two hours wondering what he'll do (or look like) next.
It's hard not to compare Holy Motors to the year's most engrossing, if not high-grossing, independent film. The performances in The Master were stunning, but I don't think Paul Thomas Anderson was fully able to turn his ideas into a movie. It wears being incomprehensible like a badge of honor; you can fight to piece it together, but I'm not sure how much it helps. Even if we're supposed to be absorbing the events through the boozy, unstable eyes of Joaquin Phoenix's character, there's still something off. It's not fleshed out. And it's not because of a lack of trying. It's a lack of substance.
By contrast, there is too much substance in Holy Motors. It's overflowing. Everything feels linked, even if the separate scenarios are so loosely tied together that the only connection is you're sitting in the same seat still watching (ostensibly) the same movie. When the guy hugs his monkey wife and pets his monkey child, you nod approvingly. Of course that's what happens next. It builds up to a certain absurdity so that practically anything is expected and/or accepted. The only way to describe it is an almost unimaginable level of brilliant, entrancing filmmaking.
I walked into the theater a little sleepy and totally unprepared for what I was about to witness. My friend Rob Turbovsky had recommended the film wildly, and I'd done no research beforehand. No trailers, no reviews. I hadn't gone to a movie fully blind since my brother and I randomly walked into The Proposition six years ago.
And I'd recommend the same for all viewers. I actually considered not writing this review, out of fear that it could spoil certain aspects any readers, but I couldn't resist. Holy Motors has its cinematic fingers wrapped around my throat. I had to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, because it's that mesmerizing.
In fact, this review from Mike D'Angelo of The A.V. Club says it better than I ever could:
"It’s the kind of bugfuck cliff-dive that’ll still be celebrated decades after most of 2012’s prestige awards-bait has been forgotten."If I had to make an early top-10 list for this year, it would include Moonrise Kingdom, Undefeated, Sleepwalk with Me and Wreck-It Ralph. The Avengers was pretty close to perfection, too. But the only movie that's really gripped me this year, gotten into my head and refused to come out, is Holy Motors.