Critics have fallen over themselves praising French auteur Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” as an avant-garde masterpiece, but that’s in the eye of the beholder. Whatever it is, it sure is bonkers and a completely singular piece of work. While almost too confounding for its own good, it’s very much its own animal, being challenging, maddening, seductive, irrespressibly weird, and beautifully transfixing all at once. Strictly made for cinephiles who are open to finding his and her own interpretations, “Holy Motors” is an entrancing, wildly adventurous ride of an arthouse film without a destination. It’s more rewarding if you allow it to just wash over you and dazzle in the ways it celebrates the growth of cinema and deconstructs how we perceive movies.
Self-consciously framing itself as a film with a passive theater audience looking in, “Holy Motors” begins with a man waking up to the sounds of an ocean liner’s horn and unlocking a hidden door through the wall of his bedroom that leads him to the theater. Then we’re off: distinctly odd-looking acting chameleon Denis Lavant performs an astonishing shape-shifting act as Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who, one morning, leaves his art-deco home and gets into a stretch limousine for a 24-hour day of nine “appointments.” He is driven around Paris by CÃ©line (Edith Scob) and each assignment is explained to him with a dossier from “The Agency” that he reads beforehand. As it turns out, the limo is actually a dressing room, complete with a lighted makeup mirror and trunks of costumes/wigs/prosthetics.
And so, in those nine stops, Oscar is someone else every time. He’s a hunchbacked old woman; he tries on a motion-capture suit and performs an erotic dance with a suited-up woman; and he becomes a grotesque, flower-eating gnome named Merde (a character from Carax’s “Tokyo!” from four years earlier who’s introduced with the “Godzilla” theme), interrupting a fashion shoot in Pere Lachaise Cemetery and kidnapping the beautiful model (Eva Mendes) to take her to his sewer catacombs. Oscar even plays a family man, picking up his daughter from a party and “punishing” her for not socializing. Between these first four acts, we have an intermission, or an “entr’acte,” where Oscar leads a band of accordian players through a church. Picking right back up, he’s a switchblade-wielding hit man named Alex who has to assassinate his doppelganger, and then he becomes a dying old man with his “niece” by his bedside. At one point, Oscar is asked what makes him carry on and he replies with, “What made me start, the beauty of the act.” Carax ends it all with two delightful surprises, one involving chimpanzees and the other set at the limo garage called Holy Motors when the vehicles are left alone.
Oscar is such a hard nut to crack, but Lavant’s fearlessly splendid turnâ€”a tour de force if there has ever been oneâ€”is amid the many reasons to go with the loose, trippy rhythms of “Holy Motors.” For fans of moody horror cinema, French screen veteran Edith Scob from 1960’s “Eyes Without a Face” plays Oscar’s loyal driver CÃ©line and gets to don her iconic face-like mask for old times’ sake. Even Australian recording artist Kylie Minogue (whose hit single “Get Outta My Head” is separately heard a few times) turns up in a blonde pixie cut as Oscar’s former love who’s also in the same profession and only has 20 minutes to catch up on their 20 years spent together. In her one scene where she and Oscar walk up to the roof of a dilapidated department store, she sings the original song “Who Were We,” and it’s an evocative, joyfully tender moment.
Coexisting with the most bizarre works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, “Holy Motors” is even somewhat like Cronenberg’s tedious, pretentious-with-a-capital-P “Cosmopolis” in that both protagonists ride around in a limo all day. But that would merely scratch the surface. Beyond the linear structure, all nine different scenarios and everything surrounding them are more symbolic than capable of making literal sense. It’s so thrilling to never know where it’s going and to never feel safe. In this surreal world, having logical answers spoon-fed to us is a fool’s errand, so by general audience standards, it will all seem baffling, tiresome, and pointless. A whirlwind of outrÃ©, genre-twisting transcendence and a gushing ode to film, “Holy Motors” is an ineffable, thematically rich piece of visionary art that’s defiantly ambiguous and surely unlike anything else. To see it is to experience it, but heed the warning that it won’t be everyone’s narcotic.
115 min., not rated.
Grade: B +