Despite its reputation as WTF cinema, Leos Carax’s new film is essentially a one-director omnibus film starring Denis Lavant in a collection of episodes of varying quality and ambition. A Lynchian dream-room opening, clips from early experiments in capturing physical movement on film, the 13-year interval since Carax’s last full-length éclat—all of these prime the audience for a heady trip, a breakdown and rebuilding of cinema. Lavant's character’s nebulous lifestyle—he’s a shapeshifting performer, heading between Paris “appointments” in total disguise, transitions optional—likewise yields an open text for post-screening palaver about role-playing, reflexivity, existentialism, cinema’s death or rebirth, makeup technology, Kylie Minogue’s singing, and more.
Is Holy Motors a masterful display, etc., or a movie that is “barely there,” as one dissenter at Cannes put it? Is it a ludic demonstration of a cinema of enveloping illusions or a kind of surrealist capitulation in the form of an attention-wandering sketchbook? (There are other options.) Monsieur Oscar (Lavant), cruising about in a limousine, prepares for each role with a stage actor’s professionalism and theatrical sense of the toll exacted by summoning his all. He plays, among other roles, a hobbling crone, a savage troglodyte (from Carax’s segment in the portmanteau movie Tokyo!) wreaking havoc on a fashion shoot, a dying man bidding farewell from bed, and a cruel father whom we might initially believe to be his true identity before the rug is, presto, pulled out once again. Lavant has a wiry plasticity and sharp gargoyle features, like a tightly wound comic-strip character, and something of the self-martyring street performer (bursting forth in a goofy music-video entr’acte) clings to him.
The movie draws on the reservoir of film history through sundry references (not least the appearance of Edith “Eyes Without a Face” Scob), and Carax even takes a jab at a tacky-looking alternate future of visual arts. In one blacked-out escapade, Oscar dons a motion-capture suit bearing dot-lights at key bodily points and tumbles about with a vacuum-packed female performer. If interpreted literally as one long piece of performance art, Oscar’s life lived for an unseen audience evokes the simstim performers of William Gibson (and, in an odd coincidence, so too does the protagonist of De Lillo’s limo-punctuated Cosmopolis have his comings and goings filmed). Or, again, is this a filmmaker musing on his art’s free self-indulgence as an elaborate variation on Buñuel’s professed fondness for disguising himself as a manual laborer and wandering about anonymously?
As Oscar hits his multiple appointments, so does the viewer feel like several lifetimes have been burned through over the course of a journey. ("Your punishment is to be you and to live with yourself" runs one unusually scathing line of dialogue.) It is not the individual segments of Holy Motors that are so outlandish as much as the notion of suggesting a connection between them. Holy Motors fades away as Carax’s first breathtaking wave of films Boy Meets Girl or Mauvais Sang do not; not all experiments have to succeed, but this dream journey ironically expresses detachment more than cinephilic rapture.