It’s been thirteen long years since Leos Carax made his last feature film, and as you watch Holy Motors, the film that ended that long drought, you get the feeling that the filmmaker wanted to use it to make all of the movies he should have made in the interim. It almost has the feel of a completed checklist, a film comprised of what appear, at first, to be incompatible parts: oddball romance, family drama, black crime comedy, musical, etc. Only as the loose ends and odd bits begin to stack up do we get a sense of what Carax is up to — and it’s something peculiar and rather marvelous.
Carax begins with snatches of surrealist imagery and dream logic, along with flashes of early, primitive silent film. He eventually makes it to his story: a sharply-dressed man (Denis Lavant) strolls out of his stately mansion, bidding adieu to his children and passing his bodyguards, and gets into his limousine. His half of a phone conversation inside has a one-percenter air (“We get the blame for their pain. It whips people up. Sign of the times”), but as we brace for Cosmopolis Redux, the camera pans to reveal that this is a limo with a make-up mirror; it later discovers wigs and enough props for a warehouse. He is being shuttled to his “appointments” (files for each rest on the seat next to him), but this is no financial shark or contract killer; M. Oscar, we discover after a first act of suspended curiosity, is an actor.
He plays several roles over the course of the day, in a fantasy version of an actor’s life wherein he can drop in, shoot a complex scene in a few minutes, and drop out. He is a disabled beggar woman. He is a wall-eyed troll, chewing flowers and terrorizing people in a cemetery before kidnapping a beautiful model (Eva Mendes). He is a concerned father of a teen, or a dying uncle, or a hitman, or (most memorably) merely the body that dozens of motion-capture balls are taped to.
This is, needless to say, something of a dream role for an actor, and Lavant is astonishing in it. The physical and cosmetic transformations are impressive, yes, but the changes are more than skin deep — Lavant somehow pulls off the difficult task of playing both the actor and his characters, simultaneously. He’s a chameleonic presence, which is a blessing; were he not, he might have trouble carrying off one of Carax’s more cunning notions, of establishing the premise and then further blurring the lines between his fictions and his reality (and ours). Questions occur, unsurprisingly, of how to respond, how involved to get, how much of this is “real.” The answer, of course, is none of it. And all of it.
“Some don’t believe what they’re watching anymore,” Oscar is told at one point, and he’s unconcerned; he’s in it for “the beauty of the act.” Carax has dismissed the idea that Holy Motors is about the cinema itself, but he’s being obstructive; this is as much a movie about movies as Hugo or Cabin in the Woods, and pulses with the same affection as those pictures. An actor could no more shoot this many scenes in a single day as Carax could have shot this film in one, but it’s not a realistic portrayal of an actor’s life anyway. It’s a fanciful, movie version of one, in which an entire career is compressed into a day — or an entire life is. Holy Motors is a vibrant mixtape of a movie where every song is good; it’s a celebration not just of the cinema, but of its versatility, its ability to be so much at once. This is a wonderful, odd, baffling, terrific motion picture.
Holy Motors opens today at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York.