Holy moly, what a setup! A plane lands at an airport and, inside what may be a nearby motel, a man with a key for a finger rises groggily from slumber, passing his hands across the room’s wallpaper: a forest of trees. Behind the wall is a corridor with a Rosemary’s Baby cabinet, behind which lies a Club Silencio, where an audience is held rapt by a movie screen and a dog sprung from a Buñuelian zoo skulks an aisle. The soundtrack is the sound of the ocean. On the screen: a girl, but she isn’t adrift at sea; her house simply suggests the hull of a ship, outside which her père walks down a Tatiesque pathway, to a limo that will take him to the first of nine “appointments” that, in toto, constitute a prayer for the death of cinema.
That surreal beginning sets up a funny, anarchic, and self-referential tone that never wavers throughout Léos Carax’s whatsit. Played by the irrepressible Denis Lavant, Monsieur Oscar travels by limo from location to location, adopting wildly different personas to create (or is it to cause?) unbelievably elaborate scenes for, it initially seems, the audience’s benefit. On a bridge, he plays an old lady who begs for alms and feels death’s imminence. In the pitch darkness of a movie stage, he and a female contortionist evoke the mating of grotesque dragon-like creatures through the wizardry of motion-capture. He argues with the daughter he picks up from a party, plays the accordion with a bunch of hipsters, drops trou in front of Eva Mendes inside the sewers beneath the Père Lachaise, and is twice murdered, first inside a warehouse when his attempt at stealing another man’s identity goes awry, then as an assassin outside a café. But since this isn’t life, only cinema, he lives to act again.
Monsieur Oscar could be a member of the strange band of misfits from Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps, filling with performance all that’s lacking in the world, giving the living something to actually live for. Really this odd-job man is a thespian, and a great one, flexing his fearless range throughout short vignettes without conventional starts and ends, though some boast great punchlines and almost all play with the conceits of vastly different genres. There’s a sense here that nothing is real, as the people Monsieur Oscar interacts with in all his different guises seem to only exist between the words “action” and “cut”—though neither word is ever uttered. What Carax is articulating throughout is the visceral satisfaction of a handsomely framed image, the heartache of a whispered song of regret, the joy of a cleverly presented red herring, and so on, ad infinitum, amen.
But Holy Motors is also more. So winks the man at the beginning of the film when feeling for trees, and when Monsieur Oscar wonders if he will ever see the forest again. They want us to actually see the forest for the trees, to not get caught up in the details or risk losing sight of the big stuff. In a scene that suggests a much wordier interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s finale, a young girl says goodbye to her dying uncle, and inside an abandoned luxury hotel, Lavant and Kylie Minogue, playing ex-lovers, act out Hiroshima Mon Amour as a musical. Holy Motors references our history of cinema, much of it the chapter on French film, sometimes Carax’s own work and sometimes even its own self, to convey the sponge-like quality of movies, their malleability, their capacity for reinvention, to celebrate not only the joy the cinema gives us, but the joy actors give each other when performing.
But for all its pleasures, Holy Motors is, to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum on Buñuel’s The Milky Way, “dangerously close to being all notations and no text”—a maddening, self-satisfied, though never smug, game of spot-the-reference that seems intended only for a particular type of cinephile. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is a girl’s cellphone ringer, not because the song is as earworm-y as cinema is addictive, but because Minogue will be performing for us in a bit. When Oscar’s driver, played by Édith Scob, clocks out for the day and dons a green mask, the moment exists only to flatter those who know of Eyes Without a Face. And somewhere in the subterranean bowels of Paris, when Merde from Carax’s Tokyo! segment stages a strange pieta, flaunting his crooked boner after transforming Mendes from a supermodel into a burka-clad saint, the scene is so completely unmoored from tangible meaning, even from the film’s own heavily coded celebration of the cine-pleasures that the George Lucases of the world threaten to erase with their digital weaponry, it becomes an actor’s 116-minute reel, a totem to the crazed Lavant’s freakish, almost superheroic range. In such moments, Holy Motors becomes solipsistic, at which point you wish Carax had had the courage to have titled it Being Denis Lavant.