Holy Motors
First screened in October 2012
Director: Leos Carax. Cast: Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Jeanne Disson, Elise Lhomeau, Reda Oumouzoune, Geoffrey Carey, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Michel Piccoli, Leos Carax. Screenplay: Leos Carax.
Twitter Capsule: This shit is bananas, like Matthew Barney's lusty stab at Céline and Julie Go Boating. Melancholy undertow a surprise.

Photo © 2012 Pierre Grise Productions/Théo Films/Pandora Filmproduktion/ARTE France Cinéma
My experience of this year's Chicago Film Festival is unusually hectic, a bit schizophrenic, and full of travel. In my day job as an academic, I'm at last going into production on a book I've been working on for several years and also assembling my tenure file, all of which involves slow, painstaking work at home. (Editor's note: as of 2013, this book is out!) Meanwhile, my same-time-next-year love affair with this film festival remains simultaneously a life-saver, a poorly timed distraction, and a lure I should probably be resisting much more than I am. It's not just the time at the movies: I spend a lot of time on buses, subways, and occasional taxis veering between a stressful but quiet zone at home and the series of electric, unpredictable experiences I have almost every day at the movies. There's a solid argument this fall for staying home and devoting 100% focus to proofreading and to full-time strategizing of my own professional security, but all I can say to that is that I find a festival like this too sustaining to resist. More than that, it's cinema itself I find impossible to say No to, much less goodbye to.

Holy Motors, a galvanizing, funny, extravagantly weird whatzit from inveterate maverick and long-dormant director Leos Carax, is the kind of movie that almost everyone will read a different way. I doubt I will be alone in slightly solipsizing the experience, which in some ways is easy to do: it's about a guy who leaves a seemingly subdued domestic scene for a series of flamboyant errands that both invigorate and exhaust him, all to some uncertain purpose. He's always driving somewhere he may not need to go, doing vivid but inscrutable things with a loose series of semi-acquaintances, and then returning to a household that is both deeply comforting and ...let's say, full of weird energy. The film hits several delirious highs of novelty, oddity, and sheer creativity, but if Holy Motors has a visual baseline, it's that streetlit, sepia-gold world of encroaching darkness through which a signature white limousine slices like a shark fin. If the movie has a sonic touchstone, despite all its disco pop, loudly panicked crowds, lusty accordion parades, and computer-generated pops and screams, it's that plaintive, Michel Legrand-ish lovers' dirge that Kylie Minogue (Kylie Minogue!) croons from atop a gutted building at midnight. The limousine itself, witty and palatially opulent inside, also seems like a hearse for its sole occupant, Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), who wears an awfully glum countenance for someone who spends his day as a prankster, performer, and pestiferous nuisance.

Holy Motors throws quite a party for its audience. The huge crowd I saw it with seemed enlivened, even elated, no matter how obnoxiously confronted by Carax's frequently insolent imagination. Yet all the time, you feel like a funeral is being conducted just beneath the film, and that the funeral is probably for film itself. Maybe I'm projecting too much of my own ambivalence about all the time I'm recklessly, romantically investing in movies, or too much of my own uncertainty over what various futures will be like (mine, the movies'), but Carax seems to be with me. He's got a performer in every scene who is both consummate and melancholic. He serves up early spectacles of an audience in a dark cinema, looking both expectant and bored, and a bit stultified, like a scene you'd dig up from some 21st-century Pompei. Oscar's outings, and by extension Carax's vignettes, seem equally attuned to all the things cinema can still do and all the ways in which cinema may have reached its limits.

All of that said, if there are any two subjects that cinephiles could stand to back away from for a precious minute or two, they are "the death of cinema" and "all cinema is about itself." The first refrain has sparked some truly compelling theorizations and refutations but nonetheless feels fatalistic and grandiose; the second has generated a huge trove of memorable classics, old and new, but feels nonetheless like a truism. What is remarkable about Holy Motors, then, is that it never feels hackneyed or glumly self-aggrandizing the way death-of-cinema or (worse) death-of-criticism articles usually do. Even better, its meta-ness is not a belabored concern that Carax constantly foregrounds, like a mad carpenter who won't stop making frames. It's simply the only way to relate to spectacles like Denis Lavant murdering his own doppleganger and then stealing his own identity before our eyes, or executing motion-capture acrobatics we would describe as "impossible" if they weren't happening inside unbroken shots, right before our eyes. The thrill of these odd, punk-spirited anecdotes is something only cinema could provide, and it's well-nigh miraculous that a movie as somber, as self-referential, as given to sadness as Holy Motors nonetheless feels like a goad to fellow cineastes to risk more, to make more, rather than just concede defeat.

Gripped by the sense of an ending, driven around by a perfectly cast chauffeuse who cannot help but inspire nostalgic reminiscence, the movie is somehow the reverse of Midnight in Paris. In this film, the only source of comfort as cinema dies is not the romantically inaccessible past but the untested frontiers of the future and even of the unexamined present: the things we could make movies do but barely ever attempt. That's where Carax seems happy, or at least alive, and he has the gift for enlivening us with conceits that sound drab or belabored on paper but are anything but that in the moment (a rapacious ogre, a scolded daughter, a parade of buskers down the nave of a cathedral).

The book I'm writing—the one I keep desperately fleeing in favor of the movies, and the one I keep rushing home to when movies, uncharacteristically, start feeling like poorly chosen pastimes—has quite a bit to say about latter-day cinema but also about desire. My touchstone figures in laying out these thoughts are Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who denounced any theory of "desire" as a longing for what you can't have, a bottomless pit of unfillable need, or indeed any kind of feeling that lodges inside a soul or a brain. To them, desire is making, producing novel feelings and relations and connections, even in a world that is so good at subtracting, canceling, or appropriating to dubious ends. That's why they often talk about desire not as lack or as mental theater but as active machinery: a factory from which The New constantly emerges, no matter how inevitably it will get folded back into the familiar. Carax's film, at least on first pass, seems as much about the desire for cinema as about the death of cinema, or maybe about inextricable relations between the two. You can hold your ear up to the movie and hear it grieving, even as it bangs a drum or cracks a joke or whisks a supermodel off for a hilarious underground fuck. You can see and hear and feel for yourself how the capacity for novelty persists even in a medium or amidst an era that seem to have squandered all their abundant resources.

As Deleuze and Guattari would say, the film hums with its own desiring-machines, rampant and strange. What is a desiring-machine, I ask, if not a holy motor? For the past week I've been on as many late-night buses as Oscar has been on nocturnal limo rides. I still don't know what he's thinking, or where he's from, or why he does any of the things he does, or how long he'll still be able to do them. But Holy Motors has inspired me both to finish this book and to set this book aside for the simpler pleasures that Carax supplies in such bizarre yet ingratiating combinations: speed, light, sound, location, interruption, provocation, costume, color, mystery, unpredictability. Holy Motors is a feast of all these things. You wouldn't be surprised if nobody ever made another movie after it. You also wouldn't be surprised if it inspired many of its viewers to do nothing but make movies until their dying days. Grade: A–

Cannes Film Festival: Prix de la jeunesse
Chicago International Film Festival: Golden Hugo (Best Picture); Best Actor (Denis Lavant); Best Cinematography (Yves Cape and Caroline Champetier)

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