Leos Carax’s surreal odyssey Holy Motors is easily one of the best films of the year. It’s an oddball epic that seems to skirt around large themes about the ecstasy of creative energy, the bizarre links of family and sexuality that connect us, but all disguised as a quaint and silly series of seemingly unconnected shorts. Think Cloud Atlas, but in French, with a smaller budget, and a much more modest storytelling schema. And with a much deeper impact.
The odd-looking and chameleonic French actor Denis Lavant plays a man who may or may not be in the employ of some otherworldly boss, and who takes to a limousine every day to drive around the streets of Paris. In the limo, he strips, puts on elaborate makeup, and emerges in order to enact a seemingly scripted or pre-destined scene with someone. He poses as an elderly female beggar who whines about not being loved. He poses as a motion-capture actor, and simulates sex with a vinyl-clad contortionist. He poses as a swarthy gangster who actually dies, only to return to the limo right on time. He also poses as a green-suited, red-haired wildman who eats flowers and kidnaps an American fashion model (Eva Mendes) in a reenactment of Carax’s segment from the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!. As the day progresses, Lavant’s playacting (and is it real, or is it play? And what function does it serve?) becomes increasingly melodramatic, heavy-handed, and even tragic. His late-in-the-shift run-in with a co-worker (Kylie Minogue), who seems to do something similar for a living, ends on an unexpectedly bloody note. But not before Minogue has a gorgeous and melancholy musical number.
Carax has created pure cinema with Holy Motors. He has made a bamboozling array of exhilarating shorts which all seem to point to the joyous and ecstatic importance of creative energy, and, indeed, the notion that filmmaking possesses the means to shape the world; film is, after all, a subtle mixture between what is fake (the story, the characters, the structure) and what is real (the actors, the actual sets, the actual filing). Holy Motors acknowledges this cinematic conflict, and plays with it to great tragicomic effect. The less it makes sense, the more it moves you. Here’s a hint that was pointed out to me by another critic: Lavant’s character is called Axle Oscar, which is an anagram for Leos Carax.
The best approach to a film like this is to just let it wash over you once. There are clear things going on, but I think a second joyful viewing might make things more clear. For instance, the film features a legitimate entr’acte, wherein Lavant leads an entire marching orchestra of accordions through the catacombs of what looks to be an abandoned theater. For that moment, the ecstasy of show, the joy of performance, and the sheer overpoweringly happy ridiculousness reaches a dizzying peak of subtle explosive power.
I need to see this film again. I want to grasp its subtleties. But more than that, I want to be in its world again. All the world’s a stage, the film says to us, and here is one of its players, under contract, trekking through the night, making himself part of our lives, but, perhaps more importantly, making a life for himself. All the joy we feel, all the pain, all the violence, are all part of our much-needed illusions. All part of the holy motor that runs the world.
Follow Witney Seibold on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.