Limousine movie sets. Raging erections. The theme from “Godzilla.” Eva Mendes’ armpits. Cross-dressing. Motion-capture cunnilingus. Mystical garages. Monkey marriages. Accordions. Disappointed fathers. Kylie Minogue. Murderous doppelgangers. Comedy. Tragedy. “Holy Motors.”
To say more, and to actively engage in conversation about Leos Carax‘s “Holy Motors,” reeks a bit of dancing about architecture. One doesn’t simply pontificate on the multiple meanings of this admirably obtuse picture, Carax’s first since 1999’s “Pola X.” “Holy Motors” is alive, bristling with emotion, mischief and calamity. You don’t watch the film, it merely happens. We thank a higher power that, this Friday, something like “Holy Motors” will unfold many times a day for several hundreds of viewers. That is, should they choose to accompany Carax on his body-hopping adventure.
The very first moments of the film find Carax himself waking in somewhat infantile pajamas, unlocking a door with a key found embedded in his finger — as clear an argument about the universality of film as there ever has been, emboldening an embrace of both high and lower arts. Carax opens this door into a theater, where an audience politely watches a film unfold. At least, we assume it’s a movie, as we only see the flickering lights, suggesting, like “Holy Motors,” that the film itself is alive, pulsating, and the viewers have gathered to genuflect in it’s presence.
Carax soon takes us to Monsieur Oscar, a batty older gentleman with a protruding brow and angry eyes, one who starts his day at work by climbing into a limousine, which reveals itself to be equipped with a series of disguises, masks, makeup kits and props. For the next two hours, we see the actor Denis Levant occupy a series of different personalities — a homeless woman and a sweet suburban father are two of the quieter ones. One of the more outlandish involves Levant vanishing into a skintight motion-capture leotard in a closed-set studio. He performs glow-in-the-dark martial arts moves before engaging in sexual congress with a towering Amazonian, similarly-clad, similarly business-like. Oscar is playing at a man playing to be scores of other men, seducing what would be scores of other women, via identification or greater, considering we never know the necessity of these suits.
The film’s most over-the-top scenario involves Oscar wearing a bright green suit, zombie eyes and Dracula fingernails to portray a mischief-maker who emerges from the sewers to wreak havoc on a French cemetery, where the gravestones have all been given to sponsors. His introduction is scored by the “Godzilla” theme, and the setup is strange enough to yield multiple readings. Is Oscar’s savage, like Godzilla, a product of his environment and the selfish goals of destructive humans? Is it to remind audiences that they’ve seen this character in the triptych anthology film “Tokyo!,” suggesting, like Godzilla, that he will have a life beyond his initial film appearance? Is it the suggestion of a natural force to destroy all that is sacred within this society? The last one allows for a more direct reading of the fashion shoot Oscar interrupts, biting the fingers off a participant and running off with model Eva Mendes, so that she may cradle him in her arms.
Oscar’s parts are all preordained, coming from a stack of folders assigned to him by his driver, from the powers on high. Whether that’s God, Leos Carax, or some other higher power is left open to interpretation, though the suggestion is that the need for his skills is dwindling, as well as his enthusiasm. Between gigs, he sits forlornly in the backseat, as the limousine keeps taking on more dynamic interiors, evolving symbiotically much like the parasitic ride of choice for Robert Pattinson’s character in “Cosmopolis.”
“Holy Motors” keeps kicking into a different gear, much like an eternally waking dream. One brief sojourn is punctuated by Carax holding a single shot, as Oscar (and/or Levant) playing an accordion solo and chasing the camera as musicians join him, a brief interlude that appears almost on a whim, as if to emphasize not everything in “Holy Motors” need be intellectualized so much as internalized. Which helps strengthen the universality of sequences like Oscar’s unplanned visit with a former lover played by Kylie Minogue. Together, they share anecdotes about the past: you’re initially meant to take this as an unscheduled detour until she breaks out in song, which further blurs the line between performing and existing. It’s the sort of moment you don’t even see in movie musicals anymore. She seems almost pained by the idea that she can only express these thoughts through song. Words, as we discover throughout “Holy Motors,” will not do. In this world, this chaotic labyrinth of Leos Carax’s mind, you wonder if they ever stood a chance. [A]