Audaciously giving itself license to do whatever it wants, Leos Carax’s narratively unhinged, beautifully shot and frequently hilarious “Holy Motors” coheres — arguably, anyway — into a vivid jaunt through the auteur’s cinematic obsessions. Unpredictable to say the least, the movie follows a chameleonic actor, played by chameleonic actor Denis Lavant, who performs almost a dozen outrageous roles that collectively allow the pic to become a wild survey of filmic genres, this to the uncertain delight of art-cinema gatekeepers and the likely detriment of commercial appeal. Cult film fans will flip, but negative reaction will be extreme as well.
Those who’ll complain — and there are apt to be plenty — that “Holy Motors” is simply preposterous would do well to recall that absurdity is the very definition of surrealism, and that Carax’s first feature in the 13 years since “Pola X” is nothing if not a surrealist film. Suffice to say that both animals and machines appear highly intelligent in this neo-futuristic pic; that the notion of human playacting takes on heretofore uncharted dimensions; and that only dream logic — give or take pure cinema — can begin to explain the wacky beauty of what goes on here.
That “Holy Motors” boils down to a bizarre fantasy of moviemaking is made more or less evident in Carax’s first scene, which finds a sleepy, pajama-clad man (Carax himself, aptly enough) opening a secret door in his apartment to enter a packed movie theater, wherein frozen-stiff patrons watch “The Crowd” by King Vidor and a huge dog walks the aisles in slo-mo.
Cut to the well-off Oscar (Lavant), who heads to work in a white stretch limo driven through Paris by loyal chauffeur and confidante Celine (Edith Scob). Eventually it appears that Oscar’s job is to carry out a number of elaborate assignments that require him to make creative use of the wigs, makeup and costumes stuffed in the back of the limo, and with which he’ll play out various peculiar, semi-scripted scenarios.
The first has Oscar looking like a sci-fi samurai in a tight black spandex suit equipped with white dots to enable motion-capture videography. On a soundstage, obeying orders from an unseen director, Oscar — or whatever we wish to call him here — delivers an ultra-acrobatic action-movie perf, joined in the end by a red-clad woman with whom he has limberly simulated sex. Taken at the level of pure abstraction, of a kaleidoscope of light, color, sound and movement, the scene is thrilling, and a bona fide marvel of what experimental cinema in the feature-length context can only occasionally allow.
Oscar’s next role casts him as the sewer-dwelling Monsieur Merde, previously seen in Carax’s section of the triptych pic “Tokyo!” Looking like a homeless leprechaun, Merde gets into a full-on beauty-and-beast relationship with a gorgeous model (Eva Mendes), whom he resourcefully outfits in a burka, and traipses through a cemetery whose gravestones urge, “Visit my website” — Carax’s first suggestion that the virtual world has nearly overtaken the real one. Subsequent vignettes allow the director to make cinephilic trips to a gangster film, a father-daughter drama, a deathbed meller and, with Kylie Minogue as a forlorn crooner, a musical romance.
Coming on like the Gallic “Cosmopolis,” “Holy Motors” is a limousine tour of a dying world, as well as a film about the malleability of identity in the Internet age, and the apparently imminent demise of physical experience. A brief scene with Oscar’s boss (Michel Piccoli) suggests he may be acting for invisible cameras that webcast his adventures to mouse-clickers at home.
Viewers willing to get on Carax’s loopy wavelength will find the movie intoxicating, while those who aren’t might at least agree that the digital shooting by Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape is superlative. In interviews, the perfectionist Carax has expressed a strong disdain for HD, but “Holy Motors” looks both vibrant and, in accordance with the pic’s thematic concerns, a touch artificial. Overall, the film’s tech package is astounding.
Acting-wise, Scob hauntingly channels her role in Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face,” while Lavant is thoroughly brilliant, almost Buster Keaton-esque in his ability to convey a wide range of emotions with a minimum of words — or, in the case of the untranslatable Monsieur Merde, sounds.