If you’ve never heard of Leos Carax, Holy Motors might not be the best way to make the French director’s acquaintance – or maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t matter much at all. Having not produced a feature-length film since 1999’s Pola X, Carax’s latest is an oddly euphoric plunge into madness and the bizarre. It stirs the imagination unlike any other film this year, and is likely to take the cake in regards to producing the zaniest, most absurdly loopy film-going experience in recent memory. Too cool for the likes of Nanni Moretti (President of this year’s Cannes jury), the film was met with both high praise and waives of bewilderment at Cannes, signifying that Carax is indeed back.
There’s hardly anything to compare the film with, as it co-exists as both a “down the rabbit hole” experiment and a seething condemning of the current state of film. The film is shaped in such a way where attempting to reduce it to one meaning or idea would be rightfully foolish. It casually inhabits a realm of odd-ball richness rarely seen or demonstrated in contemporary cinema. In some respects, Holy Motors has the feel and temperament of a swan song for the director, producing both confident and playful hymns that reverberate well beyond the images presented to us.
Carax opens the film with a surreal sequence that immediately evokes David Lynch: A nameless man (played by Carax) discovers a secret door in his bedroom that leads to an opera house. What follows is an outpouring of solemn offerings and parallel existences which serve as a glaring contrast to the Cannes folk whose hoot-n-holler reactions appear less valid after seeing the film. This isn’t to say that Carax’s film is void of wonder or even humor, what lingers is a tone of nostalgia, a craving that further encapsulates the root of Carax’s wayward plight; research into Carax offers up the notion that the director is solemnly opposed to digital filmmaking, a manner in which the film had to be shot on to sway investors into finally funding it.
The eclectic cast is led by French actor and frequent Carax collaborator Denis Lavant, who delivers an alarmingly nuanced physical performance. Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, a strange man who embarks on an odyssey through the lurid and beautiful streets of France as he’s chauffeured around in a white stretch limo by Celine (Edith Scob); the back of the limo serves as a full-on dressing room for Oscar who tirelessly readies himself for an endless series of “appointments.” Oscar takes on a vast number of identifies and faces: He is an elderly woman begging for money on the street, a businessman, a hired killer, and even a bizarre creature who infringes on a fashion shoot to kidnap a model played Eva Mendes. They retreat into an underground lair where the creature begins to eat her hair while simultaneously stripping down next to her; the film is full of scenes like this, staggering non-verbal exchanges that switch gears on a dime.
Primarily confined to a series of vignettes, the narrative unspools at a calming pace, each sequence bleeding into the next with little relation. The film is handsomely shot by both Yves Cape (White Material) and Caroline Champetier, the highlight of their work being a scene involving Oscar wearing a motion-capture suit performing an oddly seductive Beau Travail- on -steroids dance with an unnamed woman in red. We’re left astray in this world of altering identities that are “acted” out with the utmost sincerity by Levant’s Oscar. Kylie Minogue pops up as a past flame who cannot live with herself any longer, serenading Oscar in melancholy as the film has reached a point of utter seriousness – which is unsurprisingly upended in glorious bat-shit fashion. Holy Motors is a ferocious and unprecedented statement on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going in regards to the possibilities of cinema. Where Carax goes from here is anyone’s guess, though, his Holy Motors is staunch outlier that suggests film is far from being dead.
Fantastic Fest runs September 20th – 27th.