[This review was first published after the film's Cannes premiere.]
The word "bonkers" was used with abandon along the Croisette when it came to describing Leos Carax’s fifth film (his first full-length feature since 1999’s "Pola X") and "Holy Motors"’ reception at the critics’ screening and official Competition unveiling was so enthusiastic many were convinced it might pull off the Palme d’Or upset over Michael Haneke’s "Amour." In the end, the jury couldn’t resist "Amour," perhaps finding "Holy Motors" too baffling and possibly even too inconsequential.
But "bonkers" is an apt description for the film, which is equal parts delirious and pretentious. Carax wasn’t in the mood to shed light on its meanings at the official Cannes press conference (his only spoken-word appearance at the festival), wanting viewers to decipher it for themselves. He makes an appearance at the start of "Holy Motors," discovering a secret panel in his bedroom and entering a theatre where the audience all have their eyes closed. From there, he gets down to the job of depicting a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Carax’s favorite actor, Denis Lavant), who is picked up and chauffeured around town by lean, elderly blonde Celine (Edith Scob) for a series of “appointments” which involve him changing in his stretch limo/dressing room into different guises – a captain of industry, a gypsy beggar, a hired hitman, a fretful father and a savage leprechaun, among others – for an unseen audience’s viewing pleasure. It often plays like a futuristic incarnation of "The Truman Show," only with Lavant aware of his participation.
Perhaps, as many have suggested, "Holy Motors" is Carax’s own dippy love letter to cinema, each of the guises representing a silver-screen genre. That would slot Aussie dance-pop queen Kylie Minogue’s presence under melodrama and musicals. Her character is both Monsieur Oscar’s counterpart and former lover; they encounter each other in an empty department store and speak about a past tragedy before she croons a tender ballad. Eva Mendes also turns up as a mute, robotic model snatched by Lavant’s imp and spirited away to an underground lair, where he dresses her in a chador. There are also encounters with Lavant’s "daughter." "niece" (as he lays on his death bed), a contortionist he links up with to create motion-capture pornography, and a marching band he leads on an exhilarating march while playing the accordion. It’s fevered, episodic, contemplative, bizarre, emotional. But it’s never dull. Where it ends up is best left for audiences to discover for themselves. Chimps are involved.
Perhaps Carax is examining the relationship between art and life, or the need for people to factor performance into their own daily lives. The deliberate ambiguities leave "Holy Motors" open to interpretation and plenty of festival detractors found its exaggerated oddness silly, not compelling. But Lavant’s magnificence and the fact that it’s so much fun to watch means "Holy Motors" should develop an avid cult following at the very least when it’s released later this year.