If you’re looking for a movie that makes complete sense – something with a straight, clean narrative, maybe – then Holy Motors is not for you. This is Leos Carax’s first full-length film since 1999’s Pola X, and he treats it as if it were a testament – the last movie he will make before dying. As a result, Holy Motors feels like it comes straight from Carax’s head to the screen, and it calls upon the prodigious talents of his on-screen alter ego, Denis Lavant, to wind through this absurdly surreal masterpiece.
Lavant is a modern Lon Chaney here playing Mr. Oscar, a sort of roving performer who travels around Paris in a white stretch limo, making various “appointments” throughout the day, which are secretly recorded by a shadowy company. Each appointment involves a wildly different task that seems to make no sense – at least not to the audience. During his appointments, Mr. Oscar plays a dozen characters that cover a wide spectrum of oddities – a panhandling old babushka woman, an accordion band leader, a stern father who scolds his daughter for lying about being popular, old men and murderers – each with a different face, posture and concept to match the appointment.
The film has two interludes that seem more genuine than the others – one with Mr. Oscar’s boss and one with his old partner, Jean, wonderfully played by Aussie pop star Kylie Minogue, who sings the sentimental song “Who Were We?” as Mr. Oscar forlornly follows her around an abandoned building, perhaps thinking about the past. But it’s difficult to tell what these interludes mean to Mr. Oscar – they may just be mere appointments dressed up as more significant moments. It’s hard to tell.
Carax works his audience completely and with confidence, but he earns the audience’s trust before he toys with it. It takes a lot to put yourself completely in a director’s hands during a movie like this, but doing so makes Holy Motors deeply rewarding if you hang in with it and let Carax guide you.
It’s a strange journey. Take, for instance, the incomprehensible, flower-hungry Mr. Merde, one of Mr. Oscar’s characters, who kidnaps Eva Mendes from a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery and brings her underground. You might ask “why?” – and rightly so. But there is no real answer to that question. Mr. Merde is a role reprised by Levant from Carax’s entry in the short film collection Tokyo!; “strange” doesn’t quite fit as a descriptor for the character, but trying to figure him out is an intriguing exercise.
Most words fail to describe Holy Motors, actually. It’s a sensory film that depends on your willingness to have a surreal adventure. And an adventure like this one is cinema at its greatest and most pure – like the very first films, which were just snapshots of life taken out of context, Holy Motors reinvents itself as it unfolds, pushing limits, breaking boundaries and reforging the form of the movie along the way. In that regard, Carax is almost a time traveler, showing the past and the future of film at the same time.