Spoilers for Holy Motors after the jump:
Holy Motors doesn't have a point.
Fans of the film might take issue with that comment, so let me qualify it a bit. I'm not saying that Holy Motors' main goal—to entrance us with in a world of pure cinematic wonder, where narrative is of secondary concern to image, sound, and mood—isn't a worthy one. To some, that alone might qualify as a point: a reason this film needed to be made. If that's your take on the matter, fine. I know plenty of people absolutely loved this movie (and there are moments when I did too, believe me), but to me a striking color palate and an enthralling but ultimately thematically fruitless story aren't enough to make a quality motion picture. Why is this story worth telling? Leos Carax doesn't seem interested in providing an answer, other than that it allows him to do some admittedly cool things as his main character, Mr. Oscar, moves from appointment to appointment, donning a different identity for each one.
There are moments when actual ideas emerge from the abyss of weirdness, such as that of connection. Mr. Oscar seems to be looking for it in most of his appointments, and Denis Lavant's remarkable performance (one of last year's finest, no question) creates a character whose deep sadness frequently makes us ache for him. But Carax doesn't appear to have any desire to follow this idea anywhere interesting. Instead, he elects to throw a couple of murders into the equation, and later ends the film with a scene involving talking cars, rather than returning to the wonderfully human creation his film has managed to develop amidst all its strangeness. (I have to admire the audacity of ending on this note, and the scene is hilarious. But still . . . it does nothing to crystallize our understanding of the film or its main character, and serves mostly as a chance for the film to show—for about the hundredth time—how little regard it has for conventional filmmaking rules. We get it, Carax: you're not interested in following the rules. And that's a good thing. I just wish you were a little more interested in making your rule-breaking film a more satisfying piece of cinema.)
On a thematic level, there's simply very little for the viewer to grasp. Every time a possible thread emerges—perhaps the film is about cinema itself, as a conversation between Mr. Oscar and his boss indicates—Carax dangles it in front of our eyes, then yanks it away in favor of following his story somewhere else. Holy Motors is at its best in scenes such as the accordion interlude, when it's possible to forget how aimless the movie is and simply bask in the exuberant glow of Mr. Oscar and a bunch of random people performing an extended instrumental number, while their movement is followed by a series of beautiful tracking shots. It's busy. It's thrilling. And it's one of the best film scenes of 2012. Just as memorable is a sequence in which the character wanders around, eating flowers, before he bites the fingers off someone and kidnaps a model from a photo shoot. Then later, he takes a bite out of the model's hair. That doesn't sound at all like an amazing scene, but on camera it's riveting and often bizarrely hilarious.
In the movie's quieter moments, though, it becomes clear that Holy Motors isn't really about anything, and that its thrillingly cinematic veneer is masking a hollow thematic center. To some, the movie's various wanderings might well be the essence of its genius. To me, they meander, occasionally intrigue, and ultimately disappoint when all is said and done. Maybe that's my fault for wanting more from my movies than a series of sketches, and I'm missing the exact statement Carax is trying to make with his film, which is that movies don't necessarily need to be about anything in particular to be great. But with respect for the opinions of those who found actual substance beneath the movie's superb style, I must disagree. Plotless is fine. (Lost in Translation doesn't have a narrative to speak of, and it's one of my favorite films of all time.) Pointless is not. And I found Holy Motors, stunning and entertaining though it is at times, to be just that: pointless.