Is 'Holy Motors' the best film of 2012? Well, the film certainly provides plenty of evidence to support such a claim. But "best of" lists aside, the long-overdue return of Leos Carax to feature filmmaking is simply one of, if not the most spellbindingly original and imaginative films in years.
One of the telltale signs of a great film is how it affects the viewer afterward, and how soon after viewing that it begs to be seen again. Perhaps due to how thematically dense the material is, or, more likely, how effortlessly pleasurable it is, 'Holy Motors' practically forces the viewer to clear his or her schedule and immediately re-watch this utterly charming ode to cinema – if for no other reason that to begin a debate with yourself (or whoever happens to be close by) over what it is the film is really saying.
It could be (and is) about a whole host of things; and in this lies the magic of 'Holy Motors.' But for the viewer, and, more likely, for the man behind it all, it is about the enduring pleasure that is granted to the world through the magic of the movies. Just one look at the film's opening sequence – in which an audience sits spellbound by an early silent film, while a man (Carax) wakes from his slumber with a finger that has somehow transformed into a key, opens a door behind some wallpaper patterned to look like a dark forest – informs the dreamlike trance films can sometimes put a captive audience in.
If a love of film, acting, and all the minutia of life that both art forms so often explore is the heart of 'Holy Motors,' then the superlative and expansive performance of its star, Denis Lavant – who appears to be the one person on the planet composed of more sinew than Kevin Bacon – is most definitely the body that heart propels. Here, Lavant takes on numerous roles, but primarily it is that of Mr. Oscar – a mysterious chameleon who spends his working day being chauffeured around Paris in a white limousine, shuffling from appointment to appointment, as he prepares to wholly embody a new role every time. Mr. Oscar – whose own name might be a clue pertaining to the art of acting and its most well-known accolade – switches from roles as an old woman begging for spare change, to a mo-cap artist with incredible acrobatic skills, to a dying man saying goodbye to his niece.
Later, those who have seen Carax's segment in 'Tokyo!' will recognize Lavant, as he again becomes the sewer-dwelling goblin M. Merde, wreaking havoc on the streets of Paris, separating a photographer's assistant from her fingers and kidnapping Eva Mendes so as to lay naked in her lap after dining on a wad of cash and a clump of her hair. Merde's appearance not only grants 'Holy Motors' one of its most visceral "appointments," but it also brings new meaning (or questions) to Carax's portion of 'Tokyo!': Is the audience now to assume that Merde, as seen in that segment, is actually Mr. Oscar on another appointment?
But that's not the only show-stopping moment 'Holy Motors' has at the ready; Carax has also loaded his film with a musical number by Kyle Minogue, and a rousing gathering of accordion players – led by Lavant – that offers the film, and its characters, something of a palate cleanser before charging head-on into the next appointment where Oscar might be anything from a disappointed father to a mustachioed assassin in a track jacket.
Where do these appointments come from, and what purpose do they serve? That is the question in a film that seems to take great pleasure in posing several of them. But these are not the kind of unanswerable questions that diminish the film; rather they are the sorts of queries that make a movie like 'Holy Motors' infinitely watchable – as meaning and interpretation will prove to be as mercurial as Mr. Oscar himself. There are, however, hints along the way, in which Carax seems to be addressing his sentiment on the state of film, filmmaking and the diminishing dominance of the art form (and the way we view the art form), suggesting Oscar's performances are being viewed by an unseen audience, and filmed by equipment that is equally concealed – but that's not how it once was. At one point, a man confronts Oscar in his limousine, asking if there is still pleasure in what he does, to which the performer confirms the man's suspicions that a certain joie de vivre has diminished, as of late; he is growing tired, and is weary of the change around him.
That same weariness is pervasive throughout the film, but addressing it makes it palpable. It comes not only from Mr. Oscar and his ever-changing appearance, or from his doting chauffeur; it comes from the film's heart – which is as uncertain about the future as Oscar is. And with that, 'Holy Motors' takes on a kind of graceful melancholy that ushers the film further into its dreamlike state. But before it is done, Carax imbues his creation, his waking dream, with a parting nod – a programmed bit of amusement that, for Oscar and his chauffeur, somehow seems more genuine in its self-awareness.
Despite what might seem to be a rather glum (or possibly ambiguous) outlook, the film counters that with a distinct vitality in its execution, and especially in the performance(s) of Lavant, making it a distinct pleasure and a potent tale all at once. And it is a resonant potency. Unlike the best dreams, which seem to vanish upon waking, 'Holy Motors' is one that stays with you long after it ends.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Holy Motors' is a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. The film itself will auto-play several interesting previews before heading to the rather simple top menu. There, in addition to viewing the film, the viewer can select a limited set of audio options, or access the special features.
For all the attention the film has been given, it's a bit surprising that 'Holy Motors' comes with a somewhat underwhelming, but not entirely disappointing, 1080p MPEG-2 codec. The transfer itself appears to be fine, and certainly doesn't mar the film in any way; it simply doesn't achieve the kind of visual brilliance a film that is this remarkably well made deserves. Who knows, with all of the references to change and film made in the story, perhaps the persistent grain and occasionally dull blacks were put there intentionally.
But more to the point, the picture is certainly not bad; there are plenty of examples where, when well-lit, or in close-up, the image looks pristine and manages to capture all the subtle nuances of Lavant's visage, and those of his supporting cast. In those moments, along with the fine detail, there is also a nice amount of texture on display that adds to the depth of the image. Additionally, contrast levels look very good during these moments, where blacks are crisply defined and appropriately inky, while the whites are balanced skillfully. Honestly, if it weren't for the drawbacks, this image would have easily kept pace with how wonderful the film is.
However, there are moments when the film was shot in low light – such as the chosen dwelling of M. Merde – where a persistent grain and a lower contrast level makes significant deductions in the overall presentation. It doesn't completely take the viewer out of film, but it is certainly noticeable – which is surely not the kind of thing that should be so easily picked up on.
Overall, the image is better than average, but it doesn't quite achieve the transcendent highs the film's narrative deserves.
Strangely, like the image, 'Holy Motors' was given a French Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix that, while fine, doesn't seem to take full advantage of the high-definition format – which could have set the standard for this release. Instead, the audio here ranges from quite good, to merely adequate at times, to occasionally lacking at others.
For the most part, the dialogue is crisp and easy to hear over the din of traffic outside Oscar's limo, or while making his way around the streets of Paris on foot. Certain scenes could have used some additional attention – especially the hotel scene with the young, grieving woman – as the dialogue tends to drop, requiring a volume adjustment that simply shouldn't have to happen.
Elsewhere, the mix does a good job of creating some depth by adding in atmospheric elements into the surround, which helps to immerse the viewer in a particular scene. An excellent example would be when Oscar exits an underground garage to find the skies dumping rain onto the City of Light. However, it is the music that seems to be this mix's specialty. The songs really go a long way in highlighting the sound quality and helping to raise it from being merely mediocre (the accordion interval is a particularly enjoyable listening experience).
Again, the sound is good, but not great and could have used a little something extra to really make it put this film in the proper light.
There are some that will inevitably be turned off by the apparent density and perplexing nature of 'Holy Motors' – but, as with most seemingly impenetrable films that are done well, e.g., with style and creativity, and a clear sense of thematic purpose, it won't take long for those willing to give it a shot to develop incredibly strong feelings about it. In a year with so many well-made films, this stands out as a true contender for not just one of the best foreign language films, but one of the best films of the year period. And even though the image quality seems as though it could be better, and the sound would have benefited from a more robust mix, this Blu-ray release still comes highly recommended.