When people settle arguments or make decisions using a coin flip, they always call heads or tails, but never the thin centerpiece which lies between the two. To place a bet on the middle portion would be absolutely ridiculous for any reasonable person, as the odds of success are practically nonexistent. For this reason entirely, it figures no prominence in the coin flip, and seemingly only exists to give the coin the bare minimum thickness for it not to be brittle enough to easily break. Experimental and fringe cinema generally works the same way. On one side of the cinematic coin, there're the minimalist and/or surreal mind puzzles which ultimately reward the viewer for paying constant attention, and provide a type of unique memorability which the majority of conventional films lack. The most recent example of this would be Rick Alverson's The Comedy, which provided an insightful character study outside the boundaries of traditional filmmaking. On the other side, there're the impenetrable indies which completely alienate their audience, and fail to serve any clear purpose other than to dispense pretension. Movies which quickly come to mind are Alain Cavalier's Pater, one of the frontrunners for the worst of the year, and David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis to a lesser extent. Alverson is on one side of the coin, and Cavalier and Cronenberg are on the other. However, director Leos Carax has broken the nonexistent odds to find the sweet spot right down the middle.
Denis Lavant stars as Monsieur Oscar, an actor working for a company whose specialty involves planting performance artists into real life situations. Whether the public is the one seeking out this company's services, or if the actors are delving into the authentic scenarios by their employer's own accord remains enigmatic, due to the varying reactions of bystanders as Oscar performs. Carax shows us a typical day in Oscar's life, as he travels throughout Paris to his various "appointments" in an upscale limousine decked with makeup and costumes. First he portrays an elderly beggar, then the main character of a bizarre and pornographic motion capture feature, and afterward an insane figure intent on acting as weird as possible. The strangeness of each vignette gradually decreases as the film progresses, as does the size of the crowd and pseudo audience. The final three involve Oscar only performing with another actor with no one outside the scene watching. Also included are brief snippets of an old film reel of a naked man, an opening scene involving a man using a key attached to his finger to move from his apartment to a movie theater, and a musical intermission with an orchestra comprised almost entirely with accordions.
Determining Carax's intended moral is almost like an old fashioned choose-your-own-adventure book, as one person could easily come to a completely different conclusion for the director's intentions than another. The original point I derived was that the public was beginning to reject movies for being too old fashioned, and wanted their entertainment to be more intimate and personal; like reality television performed live for them. I garnered this because of the final conversation featured, and due to how cinema is closely connected to the plot (as evidenced by the opening) but is rarely regarded. However, another theory which was explicitly mentioned was that because of the influx of new technologies allowing anyone to have their own camera, actors are now being filmed all of the time, and as result must perform all of the time. It's interesting commentary on modern technology on Carax's part, but had it not been referenced directly by Lavant's protagonist, it would've been difficult to determine as a possible message. A final moral could be how the public can confuse performance art for honesty and sincerity. While this is admittedly the least likely option, it brings back memories of the Joaquin Phoenix debacle, in which the majority of America believed this A-list actor's meltdown wholesale. However, in this scenario, the public would have no idea that actors are being planted throughout society, which contradicts the film itself.
Selling every moment is Denis Lavant, who gives an absolutely incredible performance as Monsieur Oscar. Having to alter is mannerisms, tics, and even physicality for each piece of Oscar's performance art, while still maintaining a general sense that Oscar is still acting out these fictional characters, Lavant excels in one of the most difficult performances imaginable. He's an actor playing an actor portraying various characters as part of various acts. On top that, in one of the appointments he plays an actor working in a motion capture suit: An actor playing an actor playing an actor acting. There're very few people who could pull the role off to any degree, let alone to the extent of Lavant. This is not hyperbole: Lavant gives the best performance of the year so far.
Despite interesting intentions and an incredible lead, why Holy Motors remains in the middle of the experimental film coin is its constant and blatant use of weirdness for weirdness sake. As someone who regularly watches the surreal programming on Adult Swim, I personally have no issue with unusual humor and random comedy. Still, Carax continuously dips into the well of abnormality, but only to occasional success. Carax's best sequences occur when his feature is at its most subtle: A tense conversation between a shy girl and her disappointed dad; A heartfelt conversation between an emotional niece and her dying uncle. It's when Carax leaps headfirst into manic oddness that you begin to wonder whether that particular vignette was included as part of the message, or just because...well...just because. The only two cringeworthy scenes are when Oscar has leathery sex with a contortionist in a motion capture suit (even worse; the camera pulls back to show that they are both playing CGI dragon-like creatures), and when Eva Mendes sings a lullaby to a naked and fully erect man. It's this type of bizarre perversity which holds everything back, and even partially calls into question Carax's true intentions.
On the coin flip of experimental cinema, Holy Motors manages to land right on the tiny middle portion. It's a flawed film, albeit one replete with memorable scenes and an amazing performance by Denis Lavant. It's a situation in which the benefits match the flaws, but Lavant is reason enough to catch up with this French independent before it fades out of theaters.
Note: Reviewing three consecutive experimental features in a row (The Fourth Dimension and The Comedy) wasn't intentional, but I'll probably be back with more conventional choices over December.