Holy Motors marks the return of French auteur Leos Carax after a 13-year hiatus since his last film. And he arrives in grand fashion, positing an exuberant, surreal tale that’s quite unlike any other film in recent years. Any attempt to accurately and succinctly convey the narrative would prove futile, and perhaps beside the point. Mr. Carax presents an avant-garde patchwork of scenes, whose only commonalities are the lead character, the distinct visual fingerprints of its director, and a pervading sense of despair.
The film opens with shots of a dimly lit theater filled with a faceless, static audience watching King Vidor’s The Crowd in a drone-like manner. A man, played by Mr. Carax, awakens from his sleep and scales one of his bedroom walls, finding a keyhole, which he unlocks with his finger. In doing so, the director acknowledges that this is a meta-narrative, a self-reflexive film about film. And so the character, along with the audience, enters into this Lynchian visionary dream of a movie.
The rest of the film follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), presumably an actor, who is chauffeured around Carax’s fantastical Paris in a white limousine by the blonde Celine. Over the course of the day, Celine transports Monsieur Oscar to numerous “appointments,” whose details are outlined in dossiers, much like that of a script filled with scene and background character information. Monsieur Oscar proceeds to transform himself into character in the back of the limo, which serves as his dressing room. Lavant, a regular in the Carax canon, pulls off a powerhouse performance as the chameleon-like Monsieur Oscar. Even being with Lavant for nearly the entire film, the actor somehow manages to become nearly unrecognizable to the audience from one scene to the next. He inhabits a multitude of characters, ranging from an old beggar lady, an accordion player, a hit man, a sewer-dwelling troll, a man on his deathbed, a motion-capture acrobatic performer, and so on. With scenes so varied in content and genre, the director creates a pastiche of familiar episodes in the history of cinema. The viewer is always left guessing what will come next in the abstract odyssey of Monsieur Oscar, while still trying to comprehend what just transpired in the previous scene. Carax never indulges much into the private life of Monsieur Oscar, but underlines the character’s existential angst with a palpable melancholic mood. Time and again, the director thwarts audience expectations, including uncharacteristic turns by Eva Mendes as an undeterred fashion model, and Kylie Minogue as a former lover of Monsieur Oscar.
Even considering Holy Motors’ fluid, unusual narrative structure, it’s hard to deny the film’s affecting emotional punch and stimulating visual prowess. It is a wildly original, pure cinematic experience. While Leos Carax laments the downfall of celluloid with the rise in digital filmmaking, with this art-house thrill ride the cynic ironically proves there’s much to be excited about in the future of cinema. Although Holy Motors wasn’t recognized by the Academy for awards consideration, the film was met with great critical appraise and found itself positioned on many prominent critics’ top ten lists for 2012.