Befitting a movie with 10 or 11 different segments, director Léos Carax's Holy Motors is different things. It is about movies, acting, technology, work and family. Its tone likewise shifts like a fluid kaleidoscopic image through absurdist satire, domestic drama, tragic musical, fever dream and nostalgic reverie.
It's not a typical night out at the movies, but it has substantial pleasures if you love a David Lynchian enigma.
In its prelude, Carax appears like a Kafka hero, awakening to find a door in his apartment that leads into the hidden balcony of a movie theatre.
And thus, the movie begins with a late-middle-aged businessman Monsieur Oscar (chameleon-like actor Denis Lavant) departing for work in a stretch limo piloted by the elegant, elderly chauffeur Celine (the beautiful Edith Scob, who, yes, will pay homage to her role in the landmark 1960 horror film Eyes Without a Face).
The limousine serves as a dressing room where Monsieur Oscar promptly removes his Monsieur Oscar disguise. He consults a dossier detailing a series of appointments he is obliged to keep. For one, he dons the disguise of a crippled, bent old lady who begs on the street. In another, he dresses in a motion-capture suit to stroll into a factory (let's call that a dig at the contemporary movie studio), where he will engage in weird virtual lovemaking with a similarly clad contortionist.
Opening a makeup cupboard to reveal an elaborate prosthetic disguise, Oscar utters the word "merde." That's actually the name of his next role, Monsieur Merde, a gibberish-yelling, flower-chomping street loon who invades a fashion photo shoot in the Père Lachaise cemetery and kidnaps a weirdly passive fashion model (Eva Mendes), carrying her into his subterranean hideout. There, he refashions her silk dress into a burka.
(This character appeared in Carax's segment of the 2008 anthology film Tokyo as a primitive id monster who terrorizes the city like a diminutive Godzilla.)
And so it goes. Oscar dresses as a tough assassin and murders a look-alike. He plays the part of a seedy dad, who picks up his teenage daughter at a party and scolds her for telling a lie.
Of course, when it comes to the man we know as Monsieur Oscar, his whole stock in trade is the lie, an activity he seems to practise with and without the collaboration of the people he encounters. (Among them is, of all people, Kylie Minogue. The dance-pop diva offers a surprising melancholy turn as one of Oscar's partners in elaborate deception.)
If some parts are more inexplicable than others, Holy Motors remains a rewarding if not entirely solvable puzzle.
Films like this are often accused of being self-indulgent and that's understandable. But if it delivers beauty, laughter, and a pretty staggering performance (from Lavant), this is the film to remind you that sometimes self-indulgence can be a good thing.
Excerpts of select reviews of Holy Motors:
"The story seems to be about role-playing in general, with an actor standing in for the entire human family. But Holy Motors has no motor: the movie keeps starting over again. Carax produces the startling dislocations of reality that Bu±uel pulled off, but without the gleeful wit."
-- David Denby, New Yorker
"... Everything is exactly as it should be in such an exhilarating puzzle, one of the grand cinematic eruptions of the year."
-- Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
"If nothing else, you'll come out of it feeling perceptually refreshed, as if you'd just had a ride on an esthetic and philosophical log flume."
-- Dana Stevens, Slate
Starring Denis Lavant and Edith Scob
31Ñ2 stars out of five