So many people whose opinions I respect have waxed poetic about Leos Carax's Holy Motors that I hesitate before proffering any type of criticism about this respected French director's latest effort. Holy Motors is an extraordinary acting tour de force, a filmic reverie whose real topic is film history and the film medium itself -- in this sense it is wholly self-referential. And it is true that the film is in fact so seamlessly put together and brilliantly acted by both its leads -- Denis Lavant and Edith Scob -- that one can almost forgive the fact that it is also achingly boring and pretentious. As I watched it in the theater with a few hundred seemingly engrossed spectators, I began to understand what some of the dazed English majors felt like in college when attending lectures in the comp lit department on Deconstruction and the work of Jacques Derrida. The theory and comp lit majors sat mesmerized while the equally bright English majors listened on, to quote another film's title, simply dazed and confused.
The plot is simple enough. It is morning in a distant Parisian banlieue where a certain Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) -- a wealthy businessman who lives in a large modernist house -- readies for a day of work. Oscar says goodbye to his loving family and then spends the rest of the film driving around in a black stretch limo accompanied by his tall and mannish driver/assistant Céline (Scob). Along the way, Céline reads out a series of assignments -- acting directives which Mr. O. then enacts with remarkable aplomb. In the course of almost two hours (it feels more like three or four), he transforms himself into a panoply of roles -- a beggar, a 3-D live gamer/combatant, a woman, a concerned if slightly insane parent, a dying bourgeois and many more. In all of these roles, Lavant delivers bravura performances. The film's high point may well be the scene in a cemetery where, transformed into a homeless person of some type, he suddenly bites off the nose of an American photographer's assistant. The assistant embodies a stereotype that some who have worked in Paris in a particular milieu may recognize -- a cloyingly efficient young lass with a grating American accent when she speaks French who is perhaps just a bit too proud of both her efficiency and the job that she has somehow nabbed for herself in the City of Light. You can't help feeling at first that she almost deserves having her nose bitten off, until you realize how terrible what has just transpired onscreen really is --part horror, part humor.
Watching Lavant's thespian prestidigitations onscreen is indeed impressive, and Holy Motors may well go down as one of the most respected French films of the year. In spite of all of its many great qualities though, it is essentially composed of skits that are not all that satisfying to watch after a while -- they are after all, simply takes on classic film tropes. As a general rule I am a huge fan of "European film" and I prefer slow things to fast ones (slow films, slow food) but Holy Motors is just a bit too slow, even for my taste. Others, however, may find it just simply brilliant: last I checked yesterday, Holy Motors was still running downtown at the IFC center.