Arthouse cinema has been defined as “serious, independently made film that is not aimed at a mass audience”. The inference being that it doesn’t pander to the tropes of Hollywood cinema and if the threat of subtitles doesn’t startle the audience into the queue for Transformers 4: Age of Extinction (promises, promises), then the possibility of having their understanding of the world challenged will.
I’m not going to get too preachy about it – if you reject a cinematic experience on the basis that you have to read text while you’re watching, you deserve to miss out on some truly great films – but it’s a sad indictment of modern life when our choice of entertainment reflects our inhibitions back at us.
Which brings me to Holy Motors. A film that takes those complacencies and uses them as a weapon against its audience, manipulating and subverting expectations, confounding logic and, after all that, sits back and expects to be congratulated for it. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to hate it, and director Leos Carax for being secure enough to think he had the right to do this to me, a fan of confusing, layered movies with twisted narratives and incomprehensible sub-plots.
In short, I was hoist by my own crappily constructed petard.
For me, the key to getting the most out of what is ostensibly a confusing movie – non-linear structures, moody landscapes, anything by David Lynch – is to pay close attention to the detail while remaining vigilant for the thread that binds it all together. As a general rule of thumb, that thread is deviously buried between the layers of the film but generally there are plenty of clues as to its location and, if all else fails, the loose ends are tied up at the end anyway.
Not here. I wasn’t surprised when the protagonist of Holy Motors, a Mr Oscar, wended his merry way through nine ‘appointments’, changing costumes, masks, make-up and personalities in a limo belonging to the fleet that lends the film its title. I fully anticipated that as his day progressed, the connection between his dressing up as an elderly woman and begging for change in a street and committing murder whilst assuming the identity of a Chinese gangster would be revealed in all it’s glory and I could add another tick to my ‘smart arse’ column.
But as each beautifully rendered scene unfurled itself across the screen, it offered little in the way of navigable fingerholds. Oscar is stabbed in the throat and appears to be seriously wounded, but is featured moments later wiping the blood off in the limo and checking the file for his next appointment. Kylie Minogue turns up, does a song, intimates that she and Oscar may have had a child together in a previous life, then throws herself off a building. A distraught Oscar is dropped off for what is ostensibly his last mission, although the file refers to “your house” and “your wife“.
They turn out to be chimps.
By all conventional measures, it’s mental. It left me bewildered. Not that that’s a measure of the complexity of Holy Motors; I’m occasionally bewildered by events on Coach Trip. I just couldn’t work out why someone would expend their evidently not inconsiderable creative energy on constructing such beautiful, emotionally provocative scenes for the sake of it. If you are such a talented artist that you are capable of teasing anger, sympathy, disgust, arousal, pain and loss out of your audience at will, why would you do purposefully doing in such an exclusive, complex way? Just because you can?
Do me a favour and watch it. Watch the opening scene in which a man wakes in a hotel room, opens a door and walks onto the balcony of a movie theatre filled with people staring at a screen, waiting to be entertained and completely unaware of what creeps outside their sphere of immediate recognition. Ask yourself who those people are meant to represent.