The Reel: ‘Holy Motors,’ a perplexing masterwork

Ben Conniff

When I saw the first trailer for French director Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” last year, I was impressed with how strikingly original it looked.

I never got a chance to see it in theaters because it wasn’t really playing anywhere. This is the type of art-house film you’d expect to see at one of those old-school “picturehouses” in the hipster part of town, but I don’t know of any that even screened “Holy Motors.”

So naturally I was excited to see it streaming on Netflix because I knew I finally had the chance to see the full story behind that hectic trailer.
 After finally watching it, I’ve concluded that “Holy Motors” is indeed odd, puzzling, beautiful, and original; perhaps even more so than I expected.

Most of the time, the narrative feels a little too convoluted for its own good, but like a fine piece of abstract art, it doesn’t all need to add up in order to be captivating.
 “Holy Motors” is a French foreign language film that follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who, from dawn to dusk, travels around Paris, moving from one “appointment” to the next.

Each “appointment” is like a different life. In one day, Oscar serves as a captain of industry, a father, monster, musician, assassin and beggar.

He comes off as an actor giving his all to each performance, but there are no cameras. And you never know exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing or how he came into his strange profession.

Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar convincingly. He’s brilliant as his main character, but equally impressive as the various characters he plays throughout the day.

In fact, Lavant is so solid, you never know exactly which life is his true one. You don’t really know when or if the charade is ever over, and when it appears to be over, the only “home” Oscar seems to return to is his rolling makeup studio in the back of a limousine.

Additional props go to the supporting actors who interact with each of Oscar’s individual characters. Each person acts as if they’ve known his characters for years, feeding off his presence and making it even harder for the audience to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.
 Edith Scob is also strong as Oscar’s escort, Celine. The entire time, she looks like she knows something and wants to tell us, but never does.

Her charm and concern add another level of mystique to the film. Also, if you decide to watch “Holy Motors,” look out for Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue in performances quite unlike anything you’ve seen from either of them.

With such solid acting and a visual style that appears grounded — yet vividly original — it’s easy to give credit where it’s due in “Holy Motors.”

Even though it may be difficult to get through the daunting mental workout, there’s no denying “Holy Motors” is a perplexing masterwork of the perversely imaginative, no matter how confused you may be at the end. Check it out on Netflix if you’re looking for a mind-bender.