Holy Motors, the first full-length feature in 10 years from singular French filmmaker Leos Carax, is very much a love letter to movies. But this isn't a spot-the-references extravaganza; the more movies you've seen in your lifetime, the less sense Holy Motors is likely to make.
In fact, Holy Motors — exhilarating, mournful and always stunning to look at — makes no sense at all if you have your heart set on narrative comprehensibility or even plain old thematic cohesion. It could almost be a film made in a time before language, a rendering of modern life — or modern lives — as a kind of cinematic cave painting. With songs. And a white stretch limo. And Kylie Minogue.
Did I mention that it's set in Paris — the most beautiful Paris imaginable? As shot by cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape, it's a city of elegant cemeteries and abandoned department stores, of nighttime streets viewed as infrared boulevards glowing green and orange.
Those streets are a kind of home to Holy Motors' main character — or characters? — played by Denis Lavant, the stocky, gloriously acrobatic French actor who serves as a sort of male muse to Carax. (He appeared in Carax's first film, the 1984 Boy Meets Girl, as well as the 1986 Mauvais Sang and the filmmaker's best-known picture, the florid, weirdly haunting 1991 melodrama Lovers on the Bridge.)
Here, Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, a man with a very important job to do — although exactly what that job is, we never quite learn. He's ferried around the city to a series of "appointments" by Celine, an elegant specter of a woman whose white pantsuit matches the stretch limo she drives. (She's played by Edith Scob, the regal actress who, as a young woman, played the disfigured daughter in Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face.)
In the morning, Oscar, dressed in impeccable business wear, leaves his opulent-mod suburban home and is driven by Celine to his first gig: He dons an iron-gray wig and prosthetic nose to impersonate a hunched-over street person who begs for coins on the sidewalk. "I'm so old," s/he wails in a creaky voice. "I'm afraid I'll never die."
From there, Oscar transforms himself — using the ever-increasing spaciousness of the limo's back seat as his dressing room — into a hit man assigned to kill a thug who will become his own double; a dying man attended by his grief-stricken niece; and the former lover (or so it seems) of a mysterious woman in a trench coat and a Jean Seberg wig. That woman is played by Minogue, who sings a plaintive melody that's like an aural butterfly net, catching wisps of the picture's shifting moods of melancholy and joy.
Is Oscar an actor? A secret agent? A purveyor of dreams? Does it really matter? Carax is in love with the movies, but he's not sure he loves them more than life itself — the life that movies strive, and yet so often fail, to capture.
At one point Oscar, growing tired as his day of donning various personalities wears on, is interrogated by an ominous authority figure who shows up mysteriously, like Beelzebub, in the limo. (He's played by the venerable French actor Michel Piccoli.) The man quizzes Oscar about his flagging enthusiasm for his job.
"I miss the cameras," Oscar says wearily. "They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can't see them at all. Sometimes I find it hard to believe in it all."
But as if to counterbalance his disillusionment with technology, Oscar also has a quick and easy answer for what keeps him motivated as he goes about his day inhabiting the lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary humans: What keeps him going, he explains, is "what made me start. The beauty of the act."
If it's hard to discern exactly what Carax is whispering, the idea, perhaps, isn't that filmmaking technology has robbed the movies of their soul, but that the soul can't be weakened, let alone destroyed, by technology. It's the pictures, and the cameras, that got smaller; the human spirit stubbornly remains the same size.
Through the cracks of Holy Motors, one thing's for sure: This is a movie where chaos and compassion exist in equal measures. It's all there in Lavant's gloriously physical performance.
In the picture's most visually astonishing scene, he becomes a human special effect, his lithe panther's body swathed in a black velvet unitard dotted with phosphorescent buttons; what follows is an erotic motion-capture ballet performed in semi-darkness.
And in the movie's most bizarre segment, Lavant reprises the character he played in the short film Carax contributed to the 2008 Tokyo! (which also featured the work of Michel Gondry and Bong-Joon Ho), a sewer-dwelling troll with a wayward, milky eye and curving talons for fingernails. Striding angrily through Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in his tiny, ratty green velvet suit, this furious little cretin is like a leprechaun from the wrong end of the rainbow.
He stumbles upon a fashion photo shoot and, after biting the fingers off the photographer's assistant (no fooling!), he kidnaps the subject of the camera's adoration, a placid supermodel draped in a golden dress. He makes off with his prize — she's played by a regal Eva Mendes — and installs her in his underground lair, where a scene of great tenderness and utter peculiarity unfolds. It involves a makeshift burqa and an erection. Welcome to the sad and wonderful world of Leos Carax. (Recommended)