Leos Carax’s Holy Motors begs the question: when do vision and imagination and audacity tip over into noxiousness? The film, hotly anticipated by the art-house crowd, has recently arrived in U.S. theaters in the wake of a small firestorm abroad—many attendees at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival were lobbying for it to win the Palme d’Or. It’s the kind of off-the-wall fare that is so unlike anything else around that it automatically makes you sit up and take notice; Carax has an eye for bizarre, surrealistic imagery (a monstrous, barefoot hobo munching on bouquets of flowers; two actors in green-screen suits engaging in simulated sex; etc.). But, as they say, is it art? Or, to put it somewhat differently, I’ll invoke John Waters, who, while hosting the Independent Spirit Awards a decade or so ago, advised wannabe indie auteurs that “not washing your hair isn’t enough anymore.” There is more to being a great filmmaker than the cultivation of a set of mannerist quirks. Showing a monstrous, barefoot hobo munching on bouquets of flowers isn’t enough anymore.
I say this as someone who, along with just about everyone else, routinely complains that the current cinema is suffering from a severe lack of visionaries, that its images are too tame, and that its approaches to narrative are too safe. It should follow, then, that Holy Motors would end up being one of my favorite films of the year. But the film feels just as cheap and hollow to me as the latest yawn-worthy Hollywood blockbuster. Holy Motors may be significantly cleverer, and its cinematic in-jokes (like Edith Scob donning the mask she wore in Georges Franju’s cult classic Eyes Without a Face) more subtle, but it left me similarly cold, perhaps because it’s ultimately just as smug and self-congratulatory: it just happens to be smug and self-congratulatory about postmodern clichés instead of about explosions and chase scenes. In tracking the praise for Holy Motors, much of which is of the “it’s cool ’cause it’s weird” variety, and having been subjected to a screening throughout the entirety of which a stoned hipster (perhaps Carax's ideal viewer) giggled ecstatically, I’ve become somewhat worried about art house audience members, who seem to becoming just as uncritical in their consumption of willfully eccentric imports as those at the multiplex are in their consumption of mindless action films. Many of those who are eating Holy Motors up appear to be mistaking the randomness and unevenness with which Carax strings together his images for genius. No one who likes the film seems capable of offering much of a theory as to what it's about, beyond noting shallow, belabored themes like "performance" and "role-playing," but this shallowness is being misread as depth, as though the film is just so profound we can't even begin to comprehend it. It may be that underneath Carax's talent for serving up a series of freaky non-sequiturs there's nothing there to comprehend.