A self-styled rebel of the art house circuit, Leos Carax returns after a long absence with Holy Motors, an achingly reflexive, dangerous and frequently brilliant ode to cinema and performance. Carax’s first film since 1999’s misunderstood Pola X is part experiment, part provocation, and entirely enthralled with its endlessly malleable star Denis Lavant; an unforgettable, if ultimately forced, journey into its director’s imagination.
Essentially a series of madcap vignettes, Holy Motors’ loose narrative thread is provided by Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar. Ferried around Paris in his limo come-dressing room, Oscar painstakingly applies prosthetics and makeup, adopting a series of often-bizarre identities. From a frail beggar woman to a gun-toting assassin, and from a dying father to crazed leprechaun figure Monsieur Merde – resurrected from the 2008 portmanteau film Tokyo! – these sequences are linked by nothing except the transformable Lavant, as well as Carax’s palpable, reference-heavy reverence for film history.
In one atmosphere-laden set piece, Oscar follows an ex-lover around a derelict department store. A shorthaired mystery woman, she is played by a quietly expressive Kylie Minogue, clearly channeling Jean Seberg’s character from Jon Luc Godard’s Breathless. Another scene sees Edith Scob – who plays Oscar’s driver – don a mask in reference to her role in George Franju’s horror classic Les yeux sans visage. Lavant, meanwhile, acrobatically creates images of mating dragons in a motion-capture studio and takes part in a wildly fun mass-accordion performance in a ruined church. A brilliantly physical performance, his Oscar is like an evil, post-modern take on Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
But this motor’s engine has its faults. In one of Holy Motor’s most memorable segments, Monseiur Merde kidnaps a fashion model (a mute Eva Mendes), dressing his captive in a burka before removing his clothes to reveal his erection. Devoid of meaning and designed to shock, its mixture of religious and sexual imagery is preceded by a photographer excitedly screaming the word ‘Weird!’ as he photographs Oscar’s latest creation. In doing so he sums up Holy Motors’ inherent limitation: a reliance on outlandish imagery over genuine depth. It would come as no surprise if Holy Motors were to become markedly less interesting with every viewing, so reliant is it on the element of surprise.
In the end, Holy Motors is rarely less than a wild thrill. Offering a weird and wonderful tangle of ideas, Carax and Lavant are clearly reveling in the madcap vibe, and together they have created an entertainingly barmy and gag-filled ode to both cinema and what Oscar calls ‘the beauty in the act’. But in valuing invention for its own sake, Holy Motors is also a kind of fraud, an act of posturing devoid of any wider meaning. The result is something of an anomaly, both some way short of greatness and utterly essential.