Movie Review: Holy Motors

The different levels of movie engagement tend to fall somewhere along the lines of passive or interactive. Occasionally we want to be taken away to another world; other times, we want to unravel a mystery. And then there is Holy Motors, a film about films; a commentary on cinema and acting by French director Leos Carax that simultaneously engages you and sets you adrift, leaving you wondering just exactly what is going on, and what, if anything, it all means.

The esoterically-titled French film opens in Toronto this weekend, having debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is something truly remarkable to behold — particularly in a theatre.

The film opens with the audience sitting in place, waiting for the action to begin, as Carax awakens, opens his bedroom door, and escapes into the mysterious world beyond.

Certainly, part of the wonder of the film is never exactly knowing what is happening, going to happen, or has just happened. Put simply, though — and in attempt to maintain its beauty — I can tell you that the story follows the travels of a mysterious man named Oscar (Denis Lavant) through one day and night in Paris, as he is driven by his equally mysterious limo driver from one bizarre situation to the next. It is all to some unknown end, for some unknown purpose.

Just as Oscar is driven — controlled that is — by his confident female driver, we are taken on a journey by Oscar, never knowing ourselves where he will take us. Oscar trusts his driver, and we should trust him.

Lavant gives not one, not two, but nearly a dozen fantastic performances. Unlike a film such as Cloud Atlas, where the fourth or fifth character iterations of Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant are laughably unbelievable and distracting, Lavant fits each part. Furthermore, when you see Tom Hanks play a criminal, it is Tom Hanks playing a criminal; he is just too famous. When you see Denis Lavant playing a criminal, though, you only see a criminal.

Ultimately, what you are watching is a commentary on modern film, and what we judge to be of true value. Do you want something realistic, or something so far-and-away fictional that it removes us from the banality of reality? Oscar is an aging artist, one that seeks to engage and enchant an audience —any audience — that still desires what he can offer. All that matters is whether or not you want to stick around long enough to see what he can do.

When the film debuted at Cannes, it was loved by half of those who saw it and loathed by the other half. It is worth seeing, worth talking about and worth trying to understand, though the director may tell you that there is nothing there more than the pictures on the screen. While Lavant described Holy Motors as "a great poetic declaration of love for mankind today,” when asked if he felt the same, Carax told The Guardian, "No. But that's OK.”

It’s that kind of movie.

Holy Motors, TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., 416-599-8433. Nov. 16-22


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