Where does one begin with Leos Carax’s insane Holy Motors? Maybe its incredible central performance(s) by Denis Lavant, who literally transforms into a different character in nearly every other scene, each one stranger than the next? Or perhaps its stark raving mad narrative that bends so far into the absurd, it threatens to break apart? There’s no easy answer, because Holy Motors evolves with each passing minute, both brilliantly human and purposefully silly, a prism of performance and death so different from other films that it seems to have been beamed down from another planet.
Whether you embrace or reject Holy Motors’s challenging approach (I’m still on the fence), it’s impossible to deny that Carax has created a singular mosaic, the rare film that doesn’t just crush the basic rules of storytelling but reinvents them. Lavant plays Oscar, a shape-shifting chameleon who travels around the dark streets of Paris in a white limousine driven by his advisor/chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob). Oscar hatches a new identity between each stop, as if constant metamorphosis were integral to his survival. The interior of his car is a dressing room, the outside world his stage. Oscar’s characters range from a bald assassin to an angry family man to his previous incarnation “Merde,” a raging man-beast who first appeared in the omnibus film Tokyo.
The scenarios following each transformation examine the dynamic power of cinema (with long tracking shots, detailed blocking, kinetic movement), but also the different emotions an actor can express mid-moment. Instant rage and tenderness co-exist in the Merde segment, in which the hunched-over psychotic roams a cemetery, eating flowers, capturing an American model (Eva Mendes), and subjecting her to one of the most bizarre ceremony scenes ever. Lust and instinct dominate the section in which Oscar wears a motion capture suit, grinding on another female actor in what Carax himself calls the “Coitus” dance. Their erotic physical movements lead to the animation of two mind-blowing dragon figures. A motif of mutual destruction runs throughout the film, especially in one sequence in which two identical characters stab each other in the throat, as if the very act of performance could destroy the humanity beneath the mask.
Like Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, Holy Motors explores the way performance can transcend death, evoking a collective joy in direct contrast with the consistent physical ugliness on display. The film’s most rousing sequence is also its most random: Oscar leads a marching band of accordion players around a closed-off room, the camera tracking backward constantly, so it looks as if the camera is pursued by the musicians. If this sequence resonates with inspiration and joy, the musical number later in the film (with another time-traveling performer played by Kylie Minogue) is fraught with tragedy. As Oscar trails slowly behind, the woman walks through a gutted-out hotel, stepping over pieces of dismembered mannequins littering the floor. Carax's creation of dualities is endlessly fascinating.
Late in the film, Oscar confesses, “we’re having a ball in the back of beyond,” but the exhaustion on his face tells a different story. Sometimes living so deeply inside your profession is punishing to the point of madness, and with so many masks layered on top of each other, identity becomes fluid, random, even combustible. Holy Motors ends with a series of ridiculous revelations that really don’t reveal anything except more possibilities. Is Oscar an angel? Or a player in the devil’s most sadistic recess game? Like everything in Holy Motors, the answer is up for endless discussion.