HOLY MOTORS TRAILER: Holy Moly!!! Just what is this film about?

Holy Motors is making many top-ten lists for 2012, although it’s made about 450K so far, according to Box Office Mojo. Above, you can watch an extremely unformulaic and impressionistic trailer for an extremely unformulaic and impressionistic film. What I admire about the trailer is how faithful it is to the film in tone and mood, sensibility and style. It tells the viewer what s/he needs to know in order to make an informed decision about a ticket purchase. It doesn’t mislead or misdirect, possibly because it doesn’t really lead or direct. It shows and evokes, rather than tells and engages. You won’t know what the movie is about, per se, from seeing the trailer, but then you probably won’t know what the movie is about after seeing it. Should you choose to see Holy Motors, however, you won’t be able to say you weren’t prepared.

Before considering the trailer formally and in terms of its construction, appeals and thematics, a description of the film from its official website may prove helpful:

“Join Monsieur Oscar on his rollicking, soulful journey by limousine through the streets of Paris as he transforms into multiple characters for a series of mysterious “appointments”. Melding monster movie, film noir, romantic drama, musical, crime thriller, anime, Léos Carax’s mirthful, mind-bending masterwork is a ravishing fever dream of becoming, unraveling and starting all over again.”

The trailer opens with a festival laurel, from Cannes. The action begins with an establishing shot of an contemporary, architecturally interesting industrial plant, through the elevated, enclosed walkways of which a motion capture artist passes en route to a session. He wears a black body-stocking dotted with receptors, a sword quiver slung across his back.

Inside the black box studio, he runs on a tread mill, firing an assault weapon cradled in his arms as the ramp speed increases. A title card interrupts, white text against a black screen. We return to the motion capture artist in a pas de deux with another motion capture artist who is clad in red-latex. She undulates sensuously; he approaches.

Cut to a shot of a white stretch limo cruising the streets of Paris at night. The chauffeur, Celine (Edith Scob) asks, “Are you OK Monsieur Oscar?” Oscar (Denis Lavant), our protean protagonist enigmatically replies that “Somedays, one murder is not enough.” Next, a fellow passenger in the Limo asks Oscar why he carries on in the job. “For the beauty of the gesture (the art, the act)” he replies, which may be about as much motivation as you are likely to glean from the film, its reviewers or the marketing.

As if to contrast with the word “beauty,” we see Oscar making up for his next appointment, inserting a contact lens that deforms his eye, rendering him hideous, as his interlocuter offers a meditation on beauty being in the eye of the beholder. We see Oscar, now as a barefoot, red-haired freak staring intently at a supermodel (Eva Mendes) being shot in Pere Lachaise cemetery by a stereotypically self-absorbed American fashion photographer.

Dance shots from the motion capture appointment succeed, followed by a ultra-quick-cut sequence that it all but indecipherable. We next see Oscar, in pajamas, bathrobe and grey wig on the roof of a shuttered Parisian department store overlooking the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He is saying goodbye to Kylie Minogue, who looks longingly after him.

Dialogue plays over various scenes, with other young and beautiful female actors (the subtitles appearing on screen). Oscar discourses on love and loss and life: “Life if better/for in life there is love;/ nothing makes us feel so alive as to see others die.” A woman, seen from behind, zips up her white dress, in a strobing flicker of frames, an echo of the film’s opening scene of audiences in a theater showing the earliest films ever made, flickering black and white images of a nude athlete.

A montage of Oscar in various guises and physical action follows, with a nighttime shot of the Pantheon rendered in thermographic filter. The card for Denis Lavant, the virtuoso physical actor who carries this film, appears on screen, as we then cut to a side shot of Oscar, now dressed as a middle-class Parisian, smoking and driving to vocals sung by Ms. Minogue; the lyrics go like this: “who are we, who were we, when we were, what we were, back then?” Celine is shown, clutching her face while staring out through the windshield at some fresh hell created in front of her, followed by her cast card. As Ms. Minogue angles toward the camera singing, her card appears on screen. Next, a glamour shot of Ms. Mendes appears, along with her card.

As the music swells, a woman climbs onto the sign of the building, high above the Paris street. Celine laughs loudly from the driver’s seat of her limo, Oscar positioned just behind her in the privacy window of the limo. Cut to a wide shot of the entrance to Holy Motor’s garage, where dozens of other limousines– having carried other persons to equally obscure and existentially fraught appointments around the city– arrive to park for the night.

As the neon sign above the entrance changes from Holy Motors” to “Coming Soon,” Oscar (Lavant) has the last enigmatic word: “Our Life’s about to change.”

As is evident from the rough play by play above, this is not a traditional narrative or coming attraction. There is no voice of God voice-over, no marketing copy to explain or guide the audience encounter. And yet, the trailer relies on traditional supports to complete its marketing mission: there is an appeal to stars and actors; to the director, Leos Carax, who is a distinguished member of the profession. Music cues provide emotional gravity, while lyrics offer an oblique commentary on what we’re seeing. The festival laurels are a guarantee of artistic significance, while the representative scenes testify to production value, interesting content (sex, death, romantic entanglement, disguise).

Indeed, the representative scenes perform a further service for the curious viewer: they model the non-causal relationship among the various visual pleasures of the narrative, the paratactic (here and here and here) quality of the spectacle and sensation on offer.

We can tell (the music helps too) from the cinematography, the color palette, the dialogue, the facial expression and physical gesture that this is a serious, personal, probing and interpretively demanding work of film art. Whether the ultimate product is fatuous or tedious, we can glean from the trailer an earnest of the ambitions of the filmmaker and the aesthetic milieu to which is aspires. Expressive, experimental, non-linear and impressionistic, this is French auteur driven film making, with subtitles, chain smoking, seemingly gratuitous behaviors and a steadfast resistance to impose closure or meaning.

In retrospect, based on my recent and enjoyable viewing of the film, what the trailer signally doesn’t do– perhaps as a bridge too far– is describe just how hilarious and entertaining the film is, over and above its self-importance and philosophical pretensions.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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