Jean-Luc Godard famously suggested that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. With Holy Motors, the year’s most electrifying whatsit, Godard’s fellow French filmmaker Leos Carax has taken that idea one delightfully absurd step further. On its surface, this absurdist ode to analog’s death at digital’s hands seems to echo a number of recent essays eager to perform the last rites on cinema, or at least on its status as our dominant dream factory. Yet Holy Motors is such a bravura, go-for-broke exploration of what movies can do—is so thrillingly, defiantly alive—that it contradicts its own mournful thesis at every turn. (Critics who saw its world première at this year’s Cannes Film Festival cheered with unaccustomed vigor, as if Carax had just single-handedly saved the medium.) Taking its cue from its chameleonic lead actor, Denis Lavant (best known in the U.S. as the lead in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail), the film giddily reinvents itself scene by scene, suggesting infinite possibilities even as the superstructure insists they they’re all heading for the same dead end. It’s a glorious dream-epitaph.
A mysterious prologue sets the tone: Awakening in his bedroom, a middle-aged man (Carax) discovers a secret door hidden in the wall, beyond which lies a dilapidated movie theater filled with sleeping spectators. Then Lavant emerges from a mansion early in the morning and rides around Paris in a white stretch limo, keeping various appointments. He initially appears to be a high-powered businessman of some kind, but on his first stop, he steps out of the limo dressed as an ancient bag lady, without explanation, and spends an indeterminate period on a bridge, begging for spare change. For subsequent appointments, he transforms into an athletic motion-capture performer, a frustrated father, a demented troll (previously seen in Carax’s contribution to the omnibus film Tokyo!), a professional assassin, the assassin’s doppelgänger, and several other roles. There’s even a climactic musical number, performed by a fellow operative (for lack of a better word) played by Kylie Minogue and staged in the huge, vacant La Samaritaine department store.
For fans of Carax’s previous work, the appearance of La Samaritaine is a sort of homecoming, as it was prominently featured in 1991’s majestic folly The Lovers On The Bridge, starring Lavant and Juliette Binoche. That film, shot on a massively expensive replica of Paris’ Pont-Neuf bridge, earned Carax a reputation as a profligate perfectionist and a bad risk; when his subsequent effort Pola X (1999) failed to ignite the box office, funding for his projects dried up. Holy Motors is his first feature since, and Carax has admitted that its micro-stories represent various ideas he’s been unable to make over the past 13 years. He was also forced to shoot it using a digital camera, for economy’s sake, even though the film sides squarely with the fast-disappearing world of projectors and other great lumbering machines, as per its title. Thankfully, Carax has a sense of humor about this—one of the film’s best throwaway gags involves a brisk stroll through a cemetery featuring headstones that all urge mourners to visit the deceased’s website.
While Holy Motors can be disorienting (especially for those who go in cold), it never feels disjointed—each episode is self-contained. A slow accumulation of weariness gives the film an overall emotional trajectory, albeit one belied by the film’s antic energy. One question that’s never expressly answered is the nature of Lavan’s true profession. Conversations with his chauffeur (Edith Scob) suggest that the camera is following his regular routine, and Michel Piccoli makes a mid-film cameo as his employer, complaining that Lavant no longer seems to have his heart in his work. (It’s worth noting that Lavant’s character is named Mr. Oscar, and that Leos Carax is a pseudonym-by-anagram; the director’s real name is Alex Oscar Dupont.) Lavant replies that he preferred the old days, when the cameras were clearly visible, and that’s he’s always been primarily motivated by “the beauty of the act.” This exchange vaguely implies that we’re seeing some sort of near-future form of entertainment, in which actors infiltrate the everyday world for the benefit of an unseen live audience, but the details aren’t that important. What’s clear is that Lavant has lost any semblance of an identity in the modern world, and he longs for home.
It’s miraculous that this doesn’t come across as a Luddite scold, a testament both to Lavant’s unceasing ingenuity and to Carax’s boundless imagination. Even when Lavant dons his motion-capture gear and pantomimes a sexual encounter with a woman—animated in real time as two boning monsters straight out of a bored high-school kid’s math notebook—there’s a sensuous beauty to the images, and a lithe grace in the performances, that precludes snide dismissal. For all its underlying melancholy, Holy Motors is mostly a crazy-joyous experience, reaching its peak of euphoria during a fantastic entr’acte in which Lavant heads a marching street band featuring multiple accordions. Even at the end, when it seems like Carax has provided a suitably lovely finale, there turns out to be a fillip so inspired it’s hard not to bust out laughing (even though it’s really quite sad), and then another magical coda that refracts the movie’s themes through Scob’s performance in Georges Franju’s 1960 masterpiece Eyes Without A Face, while also providing a goofy alternate take on a Pixar movie that’s best left unnamed.
Put it this way: Eva Mendes appears in the film as a model in a burqa singing a lullaby to a naked man sporting a full-on boner, after he munches on her hair… and that’s perhaps the least interesting moment in this visionary, jaw-dropping spectacle. It’s the kind of bugfuck cliff-dive that’ll still be celebrated decades after most of 2012’s prestige awards-bait has been forgotten. Carax may fear that the cinema he loves is dying (though in interviews, he claims the movie isn’t about cinema at all—a likely story), but serving up a near-unbeatable contender for the year’s best film doesn’t make the most eloquent case.