“Holy Motors” is balls-to-the-wall crazy, beautiful and unbelievably strange. Director Leos Carax has always been a bit nutty, but here he finally flies off the rails with supremely perplexing, occasionally miraculous, always memorable results. This is a movie about movies, life, death, the human condition, monkeys, music, chaos, suicide, whatever. It’s something else.
Rife with symbolism, Carax’s aggressively surreal movie follows a man named Oscar (Denis Lavant) traveling around Paris in a white limousine over the course of one rushed night and assuming various identities under murky and frequently impossible circumstances revealed through one beguiling vignette after another. The director’s first feature-length achievement since 1999’s “Pola X” is one helluva comeback that dares you to understand it at every turn and at the same time defies any precise explanation.
In one sequence, Oscar reprises the role of “Merde,” the elfin vagrant Lavant hilariously portrayed in the segment Carax directed for the omnibus film “Tokyo!” Here, Merde mortifies a crowd, steals an American model played by Eva Mendes from a cemetery photo shoot, takes her down to her sewer lair, strips naked and curls into her lap as she sings him a lullaby. Elsewhere, he engages in knife play with a body double, follows a former flame through an empty building as she bursts out in song, plays the frustrated father to a rebellious adolescent, and performs a deathbed speech under the guise of a wrinkly old man. In a motion-capture studio, he dry humps a woman in a full body suit covered in lights as CGI beasts mimic their actions on a big screen. On the street, he briefly begs for change. The barrage of moments only reach a climax when Oscar finally goes home for the night — but even then, “Holy Motors” has a few surprises in store.
Lavant supposedly plays each of these characters for rarely seen spectators, all of whom are embodied by an authoratative Michel Piccoli in a pivotal moment of elusive dialogue, but Carax never lays out the entire nature of the ruse aside from deepening its cosmic perspective as he moves things along. The only certainty is that “Holy Motors” aims for achieving a kind of cinematic poetry that marches to its own beat and I’m fairly certain it succeeds. The movie demands repeat viewings; the mysteries may never reveal themselves, but they must be experienced, absorbed, scrutinized.
There’s no doubting that “Holy Motors” is an ungodly mess of images and moments, some more alluring than others, but it sure leaves a mark. Carax’s masterful “Lovers on the Bridge” channeled swooning romanticism into a loony scenario involving emotionally deranged subjects, and “Pola X” brought an elevated shock value to literary conceits, but “Holy Motors” defies any such attempt at categorization except perhaps to say that it’s the filmmaker’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but we’re in his space: an epically cryptic testament to the power of the moving images.
Cinema is the ultimate star of “Holy Motors,” even more than the dexterous Lavant. “Some don’t believe what they’re watching anymore,” Piccoli complains to Oscar. He yearns for “the beauty of the act,” an abstract concept that “Holy Motors” pursues over the course of Oscar’s journey. Lavant wants to make a movie unlike any other and has succeeded to a fault.
Edith Scob, playing Oscar’s faithful chauffeur Céline over the course of the evening, literally holds the keys to the movie’s enigma as she speeds across town. But even she has to park the car and go home at the end of the night, so when “Holy Motors” finally fades to black it leaves no doubt that Carax wants to evade any sense of faith in an absolute answer to everything that came before.
However, the Piccoli exchange does tell us that Oscar, like any character caught by the camera, has been doomed to perform acts for oppressive viewers. Carax makes that notion clear by opening and closing his movie with early Nickelodeon-era silent film footage that directly connects his storytelling with the oldest traditions of the medium. Movies, he seems to say, show us life but also give us a fresh perspective on it even when its meaning eludes us. At the end, Carax’s true message matter less than the startling manner in which he expresses it.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Indomina opens “Holy Motors” this Wednesday in New York ahead of a wider release in November. For the distributor, the movie ranks among its most anticipated titles, and interest in the film has already expanded beyond the insular festival circuit. It could perform strong returns in limited release over the next few weeks and garner cult potential that could help it gain ground in ancillary markets.
Editor’s Note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.