Leos Carax, the French filmmaker who hasn’t made a feature since 1999’s Pola X, makes quite a return to the screen with Holy Motors. Swerving wildly between high melodrama, goofy comedy and violent surrealism, it’s a totally original film with no easy points of reference (the closest equivalent would be a slightly less anarchic Buñuel or Jodorowsky).
Denis Lavant, a busy French character actor who starred in Carax’s 1991 Les amants du Pont-Neuf (which screens tonight, Tuesday Oct. 9, at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, by the by), stars as Monsieur Oscar, a guerilla actor of sorts who rides around Paris in a limo, getting into character to play several roles throughout the day, either enabling or disrupting various social scenarios. It’s not totally clear what he’s doing or why until close to the end (and even then, “clear” is not exactly the right word), and in a few scenes narrative logic breaks down entirely in the finest surrealist tradition.
In one sequence, Lavant (reprising his role from Carax’s segment in compilation film Tokyo! as a sort of malevolent gnome) crashes a fashion photo shoot in a cemetery, bites the photographer’s assistant’s fingers off, throws the model (a magnificantly vacant Eva Mendes) over his shoulder and absconds with her to the sewers, where he fashions a hijab over her face and then has her sing him a lullaby while he lies in her lap, fully naked with a raging erection. And that isn’t even the weirdest part of the film by a long shot.
But the story is just as likely to veer into poignant realism (as when Lavant takes on the role of the concerned father to a teenage girl) or into old-Hollywood grandiosity (a surprisingly successful tear-jerking musical sequence with Kylie Minogue).
It becomes pretty clear early on that you have to surrender your expectations of any kind of narrative clarity, but even so, Carax leaves just enough crumbs of meaning to make it clear that this isn’t just a bunch of random imagery. Though it doesn’t lay meta-cleverness on thick, I detected a theme of the importance of stories, characters and images — in other words, of film — in people’s lives.
And accordingly, this is a film that takes everything that film does well and then throws it in the blender, hitting just about every emotional and intellectual button there is. The rare movie that’s as entertaining as it is challenging, it’s totally bizarre but quite brilliant. ■
Holy Motors is in theatres.