Holy Motors is a crackpot film. It’s intentionally unrealistic and insistently strange. And therefore, especially when the alternative is something like Playing for Keeps, Holy Motors is most welcome. Léos Carax’s new film, his first feature-length effort since 1999’s Pola X, has its melancholy moments, but Carax infuses every frame with his joy in cinema and what Uta Hagen called “respect for acting.” You’ll see no more impressive performance all year than that given here by Carax favorite Denis Levant, seeing as how it constitutes something more like nine performances.
You may want to stop reading and proceed directly to the art house, for Holy Motors is best experienced fresh. But for those who wouldn’t dare shell out for a movie without a plot synopsis, here goes: Levant plays a professional role-player named Monsieur Oscar (not for nothing, Alex Christophe Dupont’s professional pseudonym Léos Carax is an anagram of Alex Oscar). Oscar practices the transmigration of souls: traveling by limousine around Paris, self-applying hair and makeup on his way, he hops out and slips into the lives of others.
These “appointments,” scheduled by a mysterious boss (Michel Piccoli) for mysterious purposes, find Oscar becoming everyone from a sleek businessman to an old gypsy woman to a sewer-dwelling troglodyte. Sometimes, these performances serve an apparent end, whether to produce a product or indulge another person’s emotional need; at other times, the purpose remains entirely obscure, to the point where Oscar wonders why he bothers.
As the audience comes to share in Oscar’s perspective—and fret over him, as does his trusty chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob)—the viewer takes the lay of the land that is this existential allegory. We all toil at jobs the purpose of which we may not entirely trust and the value of which we may not entirely believe. And, as the Bard once said, “All the world's a stage,/And all the men and women merely players:/They have their exits and their entrances;/And one man in his time plays many parts…”
The Brits have another saying: “Who’s he when he’s at home?” And that question does finally get resolved, in a respect, with a visual punchline. But Holy Motors invites reflection on who we are asked to be in the various circumstances of our day, the fluidity of identity, whom others need us to be and whom we need to be for ourselves.
As for cinema, Holy Motors embarks as a dream of Carax, who appears in the film’s opening sequence, apparently waking to wander through a Lynchian movie theater. Scob becomes a walking reference when she dons a mask straight out of her 1960 film Eyes Without a Face. And one of Oscar’s appointments finds him in a mo-cap studio, giving a performance instantly transformed into computer-generated imagery for a screen.
On this level and others, Holy Motors finds an artist on a lark, following his muse into playful territory. But as playful as it is for Carax to turn the liminal shell of Paris’ La Samaritaine into a set for a musical meeting between Lavant and Kylie Minogue, who sings, “Who were we/When we were/Who we were/Back then?”, the moment proves that Holy Motors has the power to haunt as much as to amuse.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]