Equal parts enthusiastic and mournful, Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” is an adrenaline shot to the heart, a glorious love letter to the endless potential of film that also waxes nostalgic about how the medium has irrevocably changed. Eschewing traditional concepts of narrative or character, “Holy Motors” follows Oscar (the chameleonic French actor Denis Lavant), a pseudo-businessman who travels in a white limo and carries out unusual appointments that require him to don masks or costumes and playact certain scenes, sometimes at the service of others and other times seemingly just for himself. These scenes vary from simulated sex in a motion capture suit to a deathbed confession to a secret assassination attempt. Though he may be working for unseen masters, such as a mysterious figure (Michel Piccoli) who tells Oscar that people are worried he’s losing his edge, Oscar appears to be performing these bits just for, as he describes, “the beauty of the act.”
The ambiguous nature of the film’s reality opens itself up to multiple interpretations about “what it all means,” but as always with boiling down complex texts to single-sentence theses, it’s a silly and futile endeavor that will only make you miss the irreducible majesty. “Holy Motors” examines, in tandem, the ever-changing nature of performance — how it’s received, who it’s for, why it exists — the anxiety of making art in an age when the shock of its existence appears to have vanished (subtextually speaking, Carax makes the argument that Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura” has all but evaporated in the 21st century), and the death of “cinema,” both in the abstract and physical sense. Though Carax packs the surface with so much explosive imagination, he adopts an elegiac approach to much of the proceedings, infusing plenty of moments with a palpable sense of dread and sadness. It’s a film that begins with a strange man walking into a packed theater and ending with machines (read: talking limos) discussing their own irrelevance, a transition from an older, more basic type of magic to a newer, more fantastical one, and yet Carax claims neither is exactly stable.
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However, “Holy Motors” is never once scornful or condescending; it never sneers at the present or valorizes the past even at its most sentimental, if for no other reason than it’s too focused on honest-to-God entertainment to ever consistently lecture its audience. Among its many jaw-dropping moments, the film features Eva Mendes singing a quiet lullaby to a naked troll spouting an erection, two crude dragons having sex, a public murder of a doppelgänger, and a beautiful, rousing accordion-scored entr’acte that ranks high as one of most heartwarming, joyous scenes of the decade. Though these scenes are self-contained, describing their full context or going into any more detail would ruin or take away from the utter insanity of their existence. Carax requires from its audience nothing less than their complete and undivided attention, an active participation in the absurdity, the solemnity, and everything in between. In other words, it’s a showcase of what film can accomplish when all the commercial limitations imposed on it are ignored.