After waking up one morning, a man called "The Sleeper" locates and opens a secret door in his apartment. He enters, wandering into a packed movie house, while a young child and a giant dog wander up and down the aisles.
Meanwhile, a man called Oscar rides to work in a white limousine, driven by his close friend and associate Céline. Oscar's job involves using makeup, elaborate costumes and props to carry out a number of complex and unusual "appointments", sometimes for the service of others, and at other times for seemingly no reason at all. The rest of the film is set in Paris. At his first appointment, Oscar masquerades as an old woman beggar in the street. At the next, Oscar wears a motion capture suit and performs an action sequence and simulated sex with an actress on a soundstage while being directed by an unseen man. At Oscar's third appointment, he plays the role of Monsieur Merde, an eccentric and violent red-haired man who kidnaps a beautiful model from her photo-shoot in a cemetery. The next scene finds Oscar as a father picking up his daughter from a party in an old red car. The two argue when the daughter reveals that she had spent the party crying in the bathroom instead of socializing. Céline continues to drive Oscar to his appointments.
In a little interlude, Oscar performs a short musical piece on accordion with a group of other musicians in a church. In the fifth scene he assumes the role of a Chinese gangster assigned to murder a man who looks identical to him. After he has stabbed the man in the neck and carved scars into his face that match his own, the victim suddenly stabs the gangster in the neck as well. Oscar manages to limp his way back to the limousine, seemingly injured before being seen sitting comfortably inside the limo removing his makeup. A man with a port-wine stain on one side of his face is sitting in the limo and discusses Oscar's work with him, informing Oscar that others believe he is getting "tired". Oscar admits that his business is changing, and that he misses the days when he was aware of cameras. He remains in his profession, though, for "the beauty of the act". Later, in what turns out to be the sixth sequence, Oscar abruptly runs from the limo, dons a balaclava, and shoots a banker (who looks identical to Oscar when he left for his first appointment in the morning) eating at a cafe before he is gunned down by the banker's bodyguards. Céline rushes to him, urging him towards his next appointment, and again Oscar returns to the limo unharmed.
In the seventh sequence, Oscar's character is an old man on his deathbed. A young woman named Léa referring to Oscar as "uncle" keeps him company, and the two talk about their lives. Oscar then pretends to die as Léa cries, before he leaves the bed and excuses himself to go to another appointment. Léa reveals her real name to be Élise, and she tells Oscar that she too has another appointment. When Céline stops the limousine beside an identical limo in what turns out to be the eighth sequence, Oscar recognizes the woman inside and asks if they can talk. The woman, Eva, tells Oscar that she has an appointment as an air hostess who spends her last night at a vacant building, and that they have twenty years to catch up on. As the two ascend the interior of the building, Eva sings "Who Were We", its lyrics suggesting that Oscar and Eva had a child together. When she concludes, Oscar says he should leave before her "partner" arrives, and on his way out he narrowly avoids him. When Oscar returns to his car, he sees that Eva and her mysterious partner have seemingly jumped to their deaths from the top of the building. He lets out an anguished cry as he runs past the two and enters his limo. Oscar finally heads to his ninth and final appointment in what seems to be an ordinary family man scenario. His dossier on the appointment refers to "your house", "your wife" and "your daughter". However, when Oscar enters the house, it is revealed that his "wife" and "child" are apparently both chimpanzees.
Céline drives the limo to the Holy Motors garage, a place filled with identical limousines. She parks the car, places a mask on her face and exits the premises. The moment she leaves the building, the limousines begin talking to one another, vocalizing their fears that they may be considered outdated and unwanted.Denis Lavant as Mr. Oscar / The Beggar / Motion Capture Actor / Monsieur Merde / Father / The Accordionist / The Killer / The Killed / The Dying / The Man in the Foyer
Édith Scob as Céline
Eva Mendes as Kay M.
Kylie Minogue as Eva / Jean
Élise L'Homeau as Léa / Élise
Jeanne Disson as Angèle
Michel Piccoli as Man with birthmark
Leos Carax as The Sleeper
Prior to the production of Holy Motors, Leos Carax had for five years tried to fund a big English-language film. As financiers were reluctant to invest, Carax, whose last feature film was Pola X in 1999, decided to make a smaller French-language production first, with the aim to regain prominence in international cinema. Taking inspiration from the omnibus Tokyo!, for which he had made a commissioned short film, Carax decided to write a cheap film pre-determined for his regular collaborator Denis Lavant. Carax was able to sway potential investors concerned with the film's budget by switching to digital photography, a film process of which he otherwise strongly disapproves.
The film's initial concept started with a trend Carax had observed where stretch limousines were being increasingly used for weddings. The director was interested in the cars' bulkiness: "They're outdated, like the old futurist toys of the past. I think they mark the end of an era, the era of large, visible machines." From that grew an idea for a film about the increasing digitalisation of society; a science fiction scenario where organisms and visible machines share a common superfluity. The opening scene was inspired by a tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann, about a man who discovers a secret door in his bedroom that leads to an opera house. The character Monsieur Merde has appeared in previous short works by Carax, originating in his directed segment of Tokyo! titled Merde.
Holy Motors was produced through Pierre Grise Productions for a budget of €3.9 million, including money from the CNC, Île-de-France region, Arte France, Canal+, and Ciné+. The film is a 20% German co-production through the company Pandora, and received €350,000 from the Franco-German co-production support committee.
Carax said about the leading role which had been written specifically for Lavant: "If Denis had said no, I would have offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin. Or to Peter Lorre or Michel Simon, all of whom are dead." Édith Scob had previously worked with Carax on Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but was then almost entirely cut out, so Carax felt he owed her a larger role. He also thought Holy Motors already owed to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, in which Scob played, and Carax decided to give an explicit nod to the film by casting her. The character Kay M. came from a cancelled project which was supposed to star Lavant and Kate Moss, and follow the Merde character from Tokyo! in the United States. Eva Mendes was offered the role after she and Carax met at a film festival and said they wanted to make a film together. Kylie Minogue was discovered by Carax after Claire Denis suggested her for a cancelled project. The role played by Michel Piccoli was originally intended for Carax himself, but he decided it would be misleading to cast a filmmaker. When Piccoli was cast, the idea was to make him unrecognisable and credit him under a pseudonym, but the information reached the media.
Principal photography was located to Paris. Filming started in September and ended in November 2011. The soundtrack includes Minogue performing the original song "Who Were We?" written by Carax and Neil Hannon, as well as previously existing music by Dmitri Shostakovich (his String Quartet No. 15), Sparks, Manset, KONGOS, R. L. Burnside, and the track "Sinking of Bingou-Maru" from Godzilla.
The film premiered on 23 May 2012 in competition at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. Variety reported that the screening was met with "whooping and hollering" and "a storm of critical excitement on Twitter". The film was released in France on 4 July 2012 through Les Films du Losange.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that the film received positive reviews from 91% of 138 surveyed critics; the average rating is 8.2/10. The site's consensus reads: "Mesmerizingly strange and willfully perverse, Holy Motors offers an unforgettable visual feast alongside a spellbinding – albeit unapologetically challenging – narrative." Metacritic rated it 84/100 based on 34 reviews. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rated the film five out of five and wrote: "Leos Carax's Holy Motors is weird and wonderful, rich and strange – barking mad, in fact. It is wayward, kaleidoscopic, black comic and bizarre; there is in it a batsqueak of genius, dishevelment and derangement; it is captivating and compelling. ... [T]his is what we have all come to Cannes for: for something different, experimental, a tilting at windmills, a great big pole-vault over the barrier of normality by someone who feels that the possibilities of cinema have not been exhausted by conventional realist drama." Bradshaw subsequently named the film one of the year's 10 best. Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph gave it five stars saying: "It is a film about the stuff of cinema itself, and is perhaps the strongest contender for the Palme d’Or yet." Spencer Hawken said, on his "Views From The Edge" blog, "Holy Motors is a mind-boggling movie, with oodles of character; it’s funny, emotional, and surprising. It has images that will stay in your head, most notably the accordion interlude, which comes completely out of nowhere, and really takes things up a gear." William Goss from Film.com called it "In terms of pure cinematic sensation, Holy Motors stands as one of the most delightfully enigmatic movies that I've seen in quite some time."
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called Holy Motors one of 2012's 10 best films. Sight & Sound film magazine placed the film at #4 on its critics poll of the best films of 2012; The Village Voice also ranked the film 3rd on its annual poll of film critics. The film was ranked first by both Film Comment and Indiewire on their year-end film critics polls. French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma also elected Holy Motors the best film of the year.
It was later ranked the 16th greatest film of the 21st century in a worldwide critics' poll conducted by BBC.