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DVD Review: ‘Holy Motors’

★★★★☆

Bemusing and astonishing audiences in equal measure since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, French auteur Leos Carax’s cineliterate oddity Holy Motors (2012) has gone on to receive near universal critical acclaim – thanks primarily to the outstanding performance(s) of the film’s enigmatic and always watchable leading man, Denis Lavant. Finally released on DVD and Blu-ray here in the UK, British audiences can now bask in the madness of Carax’s distinctive vision in the comfort of their own homes and deconstruct its myriad of cinematic references for themselves – if they have the patience, that is.

Holy Motors opens like a Buñuelian nightmare as Carax introduces us to Monsieur Oscar (Lavant), our guide into the diverse and varied world of acting. He travels in a stretched a limo, sharing brief conversations with his driver (Édith Scob) as he travels between assignments. These scenes are the conjunctions of a film full of adjectives, with each stop a fanciful, yet highly irregular waltz through the evolution of the medium. Oscar constantly transforms himself, metamorphosing through an assorted collection of pseudonyms, from an old lady begging on a bridge to reprising the mad-cap character of Mr. Merde, from Carax’s segment of the 2008 omnibus film Tokyo!.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ recent film Alps (2011), with its examination of the importance of acting and its escapist qualities, would make a fitting bed fellow with Carax’s prayer for ailing state of cinema. However, Holy Motors is a far more reverential and curiously maniacal metaphor for the importance cinema, culminating in a film that pushes its surreal message to the extremes of the surreal, boldly disregarding the patience and endurance of those unversed in the history of cinema. However, whilst Carax’s latest is happy to wallow in its maddeningly self-referential aesthetic, it’s also more than happy to welcome with open arms anyone prepared to join in the fun.

The film’s brutish dichotomy of on-screen entertainment and real life is held together by Lavant’s duplicitous series of enthralling and resplendent performances, creating a fascinatingly bizarre, yet peculiarly tender elegy to the medium. A performance that even outshines he’s phenomenal turn in Claire Denis’ sublime Beau Travail (1999), Lavant’s transformative role is like a two-hour show reel for the importance of old fashioned workmanship in a world becoming increasingly reliant on digital technology. Presenting us with a plethora of techniques that range from heartfelt dialogue to physical extremes, Lavant has created a series of characters that could each individually be nominated for an Academy Award for acting.

If this truly were the dying flicker of life from the ailing shell of cinema then you’d have never guessed it, as Holy Motors is so vivacious and delivered in such high spirits that it’s difficult not to see it as anything other than a homage of the medium. An almost impenetrable labyrinth of near-onanistic vignettes, those with only a passive interest in film may struggle to come to terms with such an experimental work. However, for fanatical fans of cinema, Carax’s most recent mind-bender is truly an enthralling indulgence of the highest regard.

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Patrick Gamble