Like Michael Haneke’s Amour, Holy Motors, the first feature film in 13 years from erstwhile enfant terrible Leos Carax, leads with a reflexive shot of a theater audience confronting the audience viewing the film. Whereas in Haneke’s film the shot has some naturalistic grounding, Carax ventures into dreamy surrealism right from the start, and doubles down on the meta by making his a film-going audience. (Bursts of silent-film footage riddle Holy Motors like machine-gun fire.) Carax himself plays the sleepwalker who discovers a hitherto unseen door in his bedroom wall that, taking a page from E. T. A. Hoffmann, ushers him into the dream palace’s balcony.
Holy Motors is Carax’s Finnegans Wake, an all-encompassing dream story featuring a protean, everyman protagonist, played by the chameleonic Denis Lavant (who’s listed in the end credits as “Denis Lavant X 11”). From scene to scene, Lavant shifts shape into an entire dramatis personae: a woman, an elderly man, the character M. Merde from Carax’s segment of the omnibus film Tokyo!, both assassin and victim, and others. Chauffeured around Paris in a white stretch limo by Édith Scob (last seen in Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours), Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar assumes these various roles for some unspecified, theoretically benevolent reason, a form of histrionic therapeutics perhaps. At any rate, Holy Motors shares this emphasis on performance with Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. Whether angel or devil, M. Oscar operates, as he puts it, in “the back of beyond.” His metaphysical shenanigans include posing as the green-screen model for CG demons, abducting a Kate Moss-like supermodel (Eva Mendes), and assuming the role of a dying man. Whatever the role, Lavant’s sinewy physicality dominates the film.
Granted, these scenes, taken individually or at one clip, may not add up to a whole lot, occasionally feeling like little more than rough sketches for a project that was eventually abandoned, which is, in fact, what some of them were. Tonally, the film ranges from anarchic comedy to high drama, even including a swooningly romantic musical number from Kylie Minogue, set atop the abandoned Samaritaine department store overlooking the nearby Pont Neuf. As well as this obvious nod to his own Lovers on the Bridge, Carax’s film also includes subtle (and not so subtle) references to Nagisa Oshima’s Max Mon Amour and, in its final moments, Georges Franju’s hypnotic horror gem Eyes Without a Face, which also starred Scob.
Self-critique or self-indulgence, Holy Motors isn’t afraid to attempt everything under the sun. Shifting gears at a moment’s notice, Carax’s film repeatedly runs the risk of going off the rails altogether. And while it’s refreshing to witness such derring-do in the midst of a festival whose films often seem content to bask in their own self-important humorlessness, that’s still pretty cold comfort when it comes to actually sitting through this misshapen mess, as stultifying as it is surreal, heavy-handed as it can be hilarious.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16—27. For more information click here.