Sublime and sensuous, nauseating and nonsensical, playful and pretentious; it’s easy to see why Leos Carax’s comeback film gave the Cannes critics a collective cine-gasm. Equally this will be a film that infuriates as many as it inspires. I’m not sure I entirely get the overwhelming euphoria around Holy Motors – and the idea that it represents a new kind of cinema (as some have suggested) seems to indicate that certain writers haven’t wrestled with Resnais, flirted with Fellini or jived with Jodrorowsky.
What is undeniable is that this is a film of big moments; a celebration of the anti-real – wayward, willful and dream-like. It’s also, at times, heavy weather – overblown and maddening. But it dares to dream, and, along with recent Sundance hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, offers a shimmering flipside to a modern cinema culture that is increasingly predictable, formulaic and mundane.
A kind of bipolar Gallic companion piece to Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, this is a nighttime odyssey through a city (Paris) that is both familiar and alien. The mesmerically-weird looking Denis Lavant is Monsieur Oscar, who, in the opening scene, appears to be a relatively normal, wealthy suburban businessman with a wife and children. This is actually one of many elaborate guises he operates under and we follow his nocturnal journey, hermetically sealed inside a sleek limo with his company driver (Edith Scob). His nights consist of various appointments which he attends in a series of increasingly preposterous costumes and identities – an estranged father, a contract killer, a holy fool called Mister Merde – always returning to his shell-like existence, forever in the employ of his ‘firm’.
Lavant is a striking, compelling actor and mime artist and I can’t think of a more perfect actor for this unique role. His get-ups range from the sublime to the silly, and his various personas get more outlandish as the film continues. The most extraordinary encounters – a kidnapping of Eva Mendes from a fashion shoot and a Tron-like green-screen science fiction movie interlude – are free-form exercises in pure cinematic indulgence, arresting tableaux shot with audacity and verve.
Holy Motors is head-trip cinema of the highest order. God only knows what the thing is actually about – I’m not sure even Carax does. There’s so much going on it’s at times exhausting. Carax seems to be riffing on various themes – identity, shape-shifting, the commodifying of dreams, the fleeting and transient nature of modern existence and cinema itself – without settling on any one in particular . Luckily he keeps things mostly playful. There’s a heady brew of influences that range from the obvious (Eyes without a Face) to the more subtle (Theatre of Blood) through to the outright bizarre (how can you not warm to a film that references both Nagisha Oshima’s chimp-lovin’ ménage a trois Max Mon Amour and Pixar’s Cars?). And there is a lovely interlude where Kylie Minogue, playing an ex-dalliance of Lavant’s, shows up and sings a wistful romantic show tune in an overt Jacques Demy pastiche/celebration. It floats in from nowhere and seems to sum up the spirit of this film very well – blending the sincere and synthetic, reality and artifice.
Carax has struggled to get various projects off the ground over the years (his last feature film was Pola X in 1999) and it could be argued that in Holy Motors he has squeezed in a bunch of unformed and demented ideas he’s had over the last fifteen into one overcrowded vehicle. This is one bonkers avant-garde art house mix tape – a sonic and visual stew for a long journey that has one destination but whose detours are bracing and unexpected.