Holy Motors is a phantasmagoric, eccentric and wonderful trip film that depicts the course of a single long day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who travels around Paris by white stretch limo for a series of “appointments.” He is a kind of actor who transforms into different characters each time, eleven in all. The interior of the limo is a dressing room, as elaborately equipped as young financier Eric Packer’s nearly identical white limo in Cronenberg’s (also one-day-spanning) Cosmopolis, (also shown first in competition at Cannes) and this film too ends with the limo drawing into a vast garage. Oscar is picked up from a mansion in the country by Céline (Édith Scob), his faithful chauffeur of the sad, elegant face, who calls his attention to the folders on his seat for each successive assignment. He begins the day disguised (only while in the back of the limo) as a wealthy banker (“Le banquier “) — perhaps who he “is”? His first “appointment” is as an aged crone (“La mendiante”) speaking a strange (Slavic or gypsy?) language, hobbling and bent, who begs for change on a Paris bridge. We see him begin to put on his disguises, wigs, makeup, clothes. The next assignment (L’OS de Motion-Capture”) is at a digital production studio where he dons motion laser-readable tights and goes through complex cartwheels and martial arts moves (like a stunt double for Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man, actually done by “L’acrobate Mo-Cap,” Reda Oumouzoune) followed by a sexual dance with a similarly green-screen motion-capture-clad female — a contortionist (Zlata). (The New York press kit synopsis says he’s transformed “into a reptilian sex god.”)
The next assignment/appointment is the most eccentric one, the starting point for the whole film since it was anticipated in Carax’s episode in the 2008 omnibus film Tokyo! (with Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-ho): he becomes a “troglodyte”(“M. Merde “), a limber, jumpy, priapic, cigarette-puffing, flower and everything-eating, gibberish-talking almost sub-human critter who assaults people on the street, terrifies crowds, and lives in the sewers. The original Tokyo! “Merde” episode is more elaborate, this one sexier and more moving. Here, he goes from one sewer entrance to another in Père Lachaise cemetery, where he confronts an apparent fashion shoot and, after being cooed over and shot with a Hasselblad, he grabs the female model (Eva Mendez) and carries her down into his lair in the sewers, where he rearranges her gown into a full burka and lies next to her naked with an erection.
It’s not clear (to me, anyway) whether the next “appointment” (le Père”) even is one, or just life, it’s so everyday-seeming and natural. But, basically shaven-headed, Oscar’s wearing a wig and a costume for it, and driving a special, modest red car in which he picks up his young “daughter” (Nastya Golubeva Carax) from a party and takes her home, saddened by her mendacity — and failure to have a good time at the party. This in a way is Monsieur Oscar’s (and probably Lavant’s) greatest performance, because ordinariness is the greatest challenge for an always-on thespian, a master of disguise — and for this gnarly-faced, nimble, habitually protean actor, who Carax has said in his earlier days could not have carried off such an understated, ordinary role. The next job, another rapid virtuoso display of changes (“Le tueur”), is a double assassination — he’s given a photo of the victim and the weapon, a dagger — in a warehouse-like interior wih people he addresses in Chinese. And he kills and is killed by his bearded doppelgänger.
But each of these events even if it ends in his death, is only playacting, however real-seeming. Now we are at transformation number seven, counting the businessman he was only while riding with Céline from home. Another assassination (“Le tué “): a banker at a sidewalk restaurant. Following this, Carax shifting into a more elegiac and melancholy gear, is a death scene (“Le mourant”) in a hotel room where a rich old man says goodbye to his adoring, love-lorn grand-neice Léa (Elise Lhomeau), which evokes the one in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, which Carax considers he “most marvelous scene ever written.” It felt rather flat the first time through, but it was fascinating to watch the kinetic Lavant acting prone for a change.
For what is billed (ambiguously) as the “last rendez-vous” Monsieur Oscar appears to be returning to Père Lachaise, but winds up in a car-crash with another white stretch limo, containing an old flame and, clearly, a colleague Eva Grace (Jean), played by Australian singer Kylie Minogue. Together they wander around the cavernous, abandoned Samaritaine department store, strewn with broken manikins, near the Pont Neuf and also the Church of Saint Germain L’Auerrois. This is the most beautiful scene, and the most emotional, and it ends with Jean singing a song in English, “What were we when we were what we were?”, whereupon Monsieur Oscar bids her farewell, and goes to his limo, only to find she has jumped to her death, right in front of his path.
I will not tell you about Oscar’s last trip, to his “home” and “family” (” L’homme au foyer”) except to say there has been a species change. I omitted one vibrant short sequence, after “Le Père,” the Entr’acte/Interval/Intermission in which Oscar marches and sings and plays the accordion in a band (“L’accordéoniste “). But to describe this film with its allusions, its jokes, its surprises, its secrets, would take a volume.
And what are we to make of all this? The amusements of an insanely idle rich man? Multiple personality disorder, caused by some trauma? “The next evolution in entertainment,” (as indicated in a conversation with a shadowy boss figure played by Michel Piccoli)? Or “a bizarre fantasy of movie-making” as suggested by the intro featuring a sleepy Carax himself crawling from bed into a crowded cinema, as Rob Nelson of Variety points out? Or — why not simply “pure pleasure,” as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw decides? Anyway it is extraordinary, a cinephile’s delight (and a conventional movie-goer’s annoyance or nightmare), and whether endlessly fascinating or just quite nutty, certainly a hilarious and audacious, authentically and deeply surreal, highly allusive and highly cinematic genre-busting original of a film. It’s never quite defined what Monsieur Oscar’s “work” means, but he seems to be blending acting with life, in a wildly more beautiful version of what goes on in Giorgos Lanthimos’ relatively humorless and flat 2011 film Alps. From Cannes, the AV Club correspondent Mike D’Angelo tweeted a, for him, astronomical score of 88. The runners-up were Haneke’s Amour (77) and Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (75), followed by, further down the scale, Ursula Meier (Sister), Matteo Garrone (Reality) and Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone). Next to Carax’s 88 in D’Angelo’s Tweet review was just a two-word comment, “Holy shit,” which can be read as an expression of balls-out awe or a sly reference to the film’s origins in the Tokyo! “Merde” episode, maybe both. Seeing all those powerful films in close proximity at Cannes, D’Angelo rated Carax highest. It’s a cinematic mindblower. D’Angelo correctly predicted that it wouldn’t win a top prize (Haneke and Garrone got those), he thought because the jury just wasn’t daring enough, but he was disregarding that some viewers really hate this film. He predicted it would be the film Cannes 2012 will be remembered for. It did win a prize at Cannes, the Prix de Jeunesse (awarded by a jury of 18 to 25-year-olds).
In the Q&A at the New York Film Festival press screening, Carax said his theme was the question “whether we still want to experience stuff, do action.” He has also commented that stretch limos strike him as interesting anachronisms, out of date, depicting “the end of an era, the era of large, visible machines.” Other themes are cinema, acting, life, transformation, the protean nature of existence — and a homage to the protean abilities of Denis Lavant, whom Carax says he does not know, is not friends with, and has barely ever talked to in real life, but who is obviously a remarkable collaborator and essential to this film. These cryptic, intentionally unrevealing details actually reveal something: an intuitive original filmmaker who has some deep thoughts about what acting and cinema do, though the film can be read as nothing but a series of eccentric riffs — till you start thinking about it. Whether this is a masterpiece or a curio is worth mulling over. But it strikes me as I’d expected: as a standout title in the 2012 Main Slate of the New York Film Festival.
Holy Motors, 116 min., debuted at Cannes, opened in France July 4, where it received a galaxy of critical raves (Allociné 4.3) but a lukewarm Allociné spectator response (2.9) indicative that this adventurous watch is a hard box office sell. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. It opens in New York Oct. 17; US national release Nov. 9.
Director: Leos Carax
Stars: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes
Runtime: 115 min
Country: France, Germany