“Holy Motors” is only the fifth feature film in 28 years by Leos Carax, who is perhaps the most mesmerizing, poetic and baffling filmmaker in France.
His best film, “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” — released here in 1999 as “The Lovers on the Bridge” — reached the glorious, grandiose heights of passion that “Gone with the Wind” and “Titanic” were praised for.
On the other hand, the amazing “Holy Motors” is more about the remnants of passion.
Denis Lavant, the gravel-faced star of four of Carax's features, stars as Monsieur Oscar, a mysterious figure with a strange job. Over the course of a day, he rides around in the back of a limo, donning different costumes and applications of makeup for various “appointments.” He becomes an old lady beggar, a gangster and a dying old man. He puts on a motion-capture suit — a Cirque du Soleil-esque bodysuit with lights — and performs some sexualized acrobatics with a female co-star.
He also becomes a vile thing known as “merde” — last seen in Carax's segment of the 2009 anthology film “Tokyo!” — a bizarre, violent sewer dweller with fire-red hair and a milky-white eye. This creature kidnaps a beautiful model (Eva Mendes) during a photo shoot in a cemetery.
Later, Oscar runs into a woman (Kylie Minogue) who may have been a former love, and who seems to be doing the same kind of job. They share a tender song.
Like many of his fellow French filmmakers, Carax was once a film critic, and his films ponder the nature of films and storytelling as much as they tell stories. He pays tribute to King Vidor’s “The Crowd” and Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face.” Edith Scob, who plays Monsieur Oscar's compassionate limo driver, was the star of the latter.
The various segments clearly represent different film genres: the musical, the horror film, the weepie, etc. The movie is, by turns, haunting, moving and shocking.
But Carax also asks questions about the nature of performance. Is Monsieur Oscar performing for anyone in particular, or maybe everyone in general? Does he ever get to be “himself,” even behind the scenes? In the movie’s most human moments, we see Oscar growing weary, perhaps not even remembering why he’s doing this kind of work.
The movie’s final moments are among its most bizarre, raising more questions than they answer. We all have masks we wear, the movie seems to say, and none of us know truly who we are — not even talking cars.