On our way out of Holy Motors, my editor and I bumped into someone he knows. After introducing me to his buddy, my editor mentioned the title of the movie we’d just seen and briefly explained that it was the latest from the enigmatic, sui generis French auteur Leos Carax (whose three-decade, five-feature career Elbert Ventura explores on Slate this week). The two perfectly reasonable questions the friend proceeded to ask—“What was it about?” and “Was it any good?”—made my editor and me look at each other and laugh out loud. We’d just been enthusiastically concurring that, though we were thrilled to have seen Holy Motors, neither of us had the slightest idea what it was about or whether we could say we enjoyed it.
Holy Motors is one of those evaluation-transcending, plot-summary-rejecting “experience movies.” I’d need a personalized flow chart of each reader’s cinematic tastes to know whether to recommend it. Do you accompany David Lynch into his twistiest, least narrative, most second-season-of-Twin Peaks places? Do you regard each new David Cronenberg film as an event, whether the subject is the Freud/Jung rivalry or a head-exploding virus? Have you willingly seen at least one Matthew Barney movie? If so, you’ll probably enjoy a bracing plunge into Holy Motors’ vortex of narrative fakeouts, shifting identities, and gleefully juvenile sight gags. If nothing else, you’ll come out of it feeling perceptually refreshed, as if you’d just had a ride on an aesthetic and philosophical log flume.
In its structure and basic setup, Holy Motors bears some uncanny (and surely accidental) similarities to a Cronenberg movie released earlier this year, Cosmopolis. In both films, a mysterious man in the back of a tricked-out white stretch limo—in Cosmopolis the role was played by Robert Pattinson; here it’s Carax’s longtime muse Denis Lavant—cruises through a vaguely futuristic city at night, moving through a series of bizarre, often violent encounters with seemingly unrelated characters. But where Cosmopolis was coldly cerebral, Holy Motors is emotionally labile to the point of hysteria, with a tone that careens from sentimentality to bitterness to cheekiness to despair.
As if to prepare us for those whiplash shifts, Carax quite explicitly sets up the movie as his and our collective dream. In the very first scene, we see a film audience sitting in the dark, every member fast asleep. Just after, a man in pajamas—played by Carax himself in a brief cameo—gets out of bed and goes to a wall covered in tree-patterned wallpaper. One of his fingers suddenly sports a keylike extension, which he uses to unlock a hidden door in the wall, stepping through the two-dimensional trees as if into a forest. This image, which eerily captures that “oh, of course” logic familiar from dreams, is at once disorienting and enticing. Carax is inviting us into his dream, or at the very least, into a hidden world that only he has—or rather, is—the key to. However wary we may be of what’s on the other side, how could we not step through with him?
Once Carax breaks through that tree-patterned wallpaper, all hell breaks loose, in the form of the astounding French actor Denis Lavant. Slight in stature but powerfully built, with the face of a pockmarked clown, Lavant plays, according to the credits, 11 separate “characters.” But are they separate people, or just successive disguises being taken on by the man in the limousine? Does the little bald man in the limo—or for that matter, any of the people he impersonates and/or encounters—even possess a single stable identity? At least Lavant’s limo driver, Céline (Edith Scob, exquisite in the way only a septuagenarian French actress can be), seems to have some handle on who the man behind the ever-changing wigs and latex prostheses really is. As they glide through the streets of a luridly lit Paris, she addresses him as “Monsieur Oscar,” alluding to an obscure organization that provides them both with briefing dossiers for his daily “appointments”—existential paid errands that require, to put it mildly, a unique skill set.
Over the course of a very long workday, Oscar (if that is his name) will ably impersonate an old beggar woman, a wall-eyed, gibberish-spouting troll who kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot in a cemetery, and a dying old man saying a poignant goodbye to his niece. He will don a motion capture suit for a bout of impossibly acrobatic sex with a woman also wearing a mo-cap suit, as their images are transformed on a computer screen into rutting futuristic monsters (one of many moments in which Holy Motors’ experiential labyrinth resembles a video game, avatars and all.) At one point, he’ll be sent on a mission to kill a man who seems, in turn, to be Denis Lavant in another disguise. Later, he’ll leap out of the limo to join the Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue in the abandoned hulk of Paris’ legendary Samaritaine department store, where they sing an aching duet of lost love that’s like something straight out Jacques Démy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
I don’t want to reveal too much more about what happens in Holy Motors, a movie that teaches you how to watch it as you go along—like the hand of the man played by Leos Carax in that opening, it contains its own key, several of them in fact. In another early scene, the film even conjures a wickedly funny negative portrait of its own worst viewer, the one it doesn’t want you to be. It’s that scene in which the troll seizes Eva Mendes in the graveyard—the longest, most elaborate, and most deliberately grotesque of Monsieur Oscar’s identity-morphing “appointments.” An American photographer in shorts, snapping photo after photo of the magazine-perfect Mendes, exclaims over and over again in English, “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!” As the abject, snaggle-toothed hunchback played (or embodied?) by Oscar limps into the shot, the photographer changes to a different, equally unilluminating term of aesthetic judgment: “Weird! Weird! Weird!” It’s not until you’ve dissolved the distinction between those categories (or maybe discarded them altogether) that you can start to experience the unholy magic of Holy Motors, a movie that’s beyond weird, and beyond beautiful.