To judge from its critical reception, “Holy Motors,” the first Leos Carax feature in the dozen years since “Pola X,” is everything that admirers of this raging visionary and eccentric one-time enfant terrible could wish for… and perhaps just a bit less.
“Pola X” was a rapturously bizarre adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Pierre”; an altogether less literary affair, “Holy Motors” harks back in mood to the French avant-garde of a hundred plus years ago. As the playwright-pataphysician Alfred Jarry explained in 1897, “It is because the public are a mass ― inert, obtuse, and passive ― that they need to be shaken up from time to time so that we can tell from their bear-like grunts where they are.”
A blatant crowd-confounder, “Holy Motors,” which opens Wednesday at Film Forum and the Eleanor Bunim Monroe Film Center in New York, is in some respects a continuation of the Carax contribution to the 2008 anthology “Tokyo!” Far more memorable than the offerings provided by Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-Ho, the Carax episode (“Merde”) had the director’s alter-ego Denis Lavant pop out of a Tokyo manhole — barefoot and green-clad, with one milky eye and a crooked red beard — and, accompanied by a pastiche of the score for “Godzilla,” stagger through the Ginza, grabbing, eating, smoking, licking, and, in general, alarming pedestrians (when they’re not documenting his antics on their cell phones).
“Merde” was as much a form of performance art as a movie; the same could be said for “Holy Motors,” which features a similar visitation midway through. “Holy Motors” begins with Lavant waking and wandering downstairs to a movie theater in his pajamas. The somnolent audience is, no doubt, us (“Are they asleep? Dead?” Carax asks) and the somnambulist turns out to be Mr. Oscar, a middle-aged something or other who, transported about Paris in a stretch limo cum mobile dressing room, appears in a succession of guises — role-playing first, a crippled bag lady, next donning a motion-capture suit engaged in pantomimed sex with an undulating vinyl-clad babe, and then reappearing as the mad creature from “Tokyo!”
For its first half hour, “Holy Motors” is as relentless in its free-associational logic (and disjunctive editing tricks) as Buñuel and Dalí’s 1930 “L’age d’Or,” peaking during the sequence where the “Tokyo!” version of Mr. Oscar emerges from a Paris sewer and sets out for the Père Lachaise Cemetery (sign on tombstone: “visitez mon site”). There, after chowing down on funeral wreathes, he upstages a fashion shoot, and kidnaps the passive model (Eva Mendes); having invented a sort of burqa for her, he strips himself naked (revealing an extremely grotty erection) and lies in her lap as she sings him a lullabye.
None of Mr. Oscar’s subsequent “appointments,” each of which involves a new persona and evokes a different genre, are ever quite this uproarious. Chauffeured around Paris by his driver Céline (the legendary Édith Scob who, at one point dons her mask from “Eyes Without a Face”), the professional life-actor (if that’s what he is) keeps entering different scenarios — a frumpy hipster picking up his teenaged daughter from party, a musician leading a band of accordionists through a cathedral, and, in the movie’s most alienating sequence, an assassin bloodily dispatching his double. It is at this point that the movie wounds itself, devolving from pure irrationality into a sort of sub Jacques Rivette theatrical conceit involving a cosmology that might have been imagined by Charlie Kaufman.
As its title suggests, “Holy Motors” is some sort of infernal mechanism that might or might not refer to the cinema. That it’s Carax’s first digital feature suggests a machine abandoned — “I miss the camera,” Mr. Oscar tells his de facto producer. Like all of Carax films, “Holy Motors” is highly personal if not overtly autobiographical. (“Oscar” evokes the academy award that the Lavant character so richly deserves but it’s also the filmmaker’s real middle name.) In the final movement, two limos collide and Mr. Oscar inadvertently bumps into a fellow performer (Kylie Minogue). Seems they costarred in a love story long ago. “Who were we when we were who we were?” she sings in English. It’s the prelude to a boffo closer in which the vehicles get the last word.
Still: Indomina Releasing