Directed by Leos Carax. Starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Elise Lhomeau, Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Disson, Leos Carax 16 cert, QFT, Belfast; IFI/Light House/Screen, Dublin, 115 min
Leos Carax’s latest is a surreal, far-out treat, writes DONALD CLARKE
AH, MATURITY. Leos Carax has taken some time off to reconsider his art. Known for self-regarding, showy pictures such as Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Pola X, the French director really did need to do a spot of growing up.
Now 51, Carax has – more than a decade after his last feature – returned with a film that is, well, more deranged, more opulently stylish and more showily ludicrous than anything he has ever done. It’s also wonderful. Holy Motors has already picked up its fair share of poor reviews. But even detractors admit that the movie looks like the work of an original mind.
Holy Motors emerges a few months after a film that (on paper at least) boasts a very similar plot. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis also concerned a mysterious individual being ferried about a great capital in a plush, absurdly well-appointed limousine. There the similarities end. Whereas the Cronenberg film seemed claustrophobic and anti-cinematic, Carax’s piece is expansive, imaginative and intoxicated (sometimes to the point of nausea) with the seventh art.
We begin with a man awaking from sleep in a grim hotel room and making his way through a wall decorated with grey trees. It is M Carax himself. His conscious dream follows the adventures of a mysterious operative named Monsieur Oscar.
Played with acrobatic menace by the untouchable Denis Lavant, Oscar is ferried about Paris and, after pulling on costumes and make-up, is required to act out various personae in many odd locations. He becomes a homeless lady who fails to communicate with passers by. He is driven to a movie studio and must don the costume (a leotard decorated with lights) that actors wear when participating in motion-capture sequences.
In the film’s most disturbing and funny sequence (derived from Carax’s episode in the portmanteau picture Tokyo!), Oscar turns into a filthy, impish city-sprite who answers to Monsieur Merde.
As you may have guessed, the picture features a series of gestures towards a bewildering array of movie tropes and genres. Indeed, Holy Motors is a veritable encyclopaedia of cinema. When Oscar returns “home” (one of several potential domiciles) to reveal that his current persona lives happily with a chimpanzee, we are inevitably reminded of Charlotte Rampling’s singular domestic habits in Nagisa Oshima’s Max, Mon Amour. If you hadn’t noticed that Edith Scob, who plays Oscar’s driver, was the lead in Eyes Without a Face, the great French horror film from 1960, you will be alerted when she dons a blank green facemask.
Enough snooty French stuff? The motion-capture sequence brings us right up to date with a nod towards Avatar and its chums.
All of this might come across as so much self-abuse if the individual incidents did not have such balance, humour and emotional truth. The key to success in surrealist cinema (Holy Motors is that, among other things) is a willingness to face the absurd with as straight a face as one can muster.
Monsieur Merde’s disturbing sexual encounter with a mute model – Eve Mendes is a superb Esmerelda to Lavant’s hideous Quasimodo – is funny because the characters seem so unaware of their own ludicrousness. A late musical sequence, during which Lavant and Kylie Minogue warble a perfectly pitched tune co-written by Neil Hannon, treads the same path between sentiment and passion that circled the imperishable films of Jacques Demy.
Does it hang together? Does the film have enough super-structure to justify its episodic nature? Just about. More of a symphony than an opera, Holy Motors ebbs and flows before reaching a comic climax that both cheekily undermines and wryly justifies all that has gone before.
Maybe, by passing through that wallpaper forest, M Carax was reminding us of the relationship between the wood and its constituent trees. Anything is possible in the seriously silly world of Holy Motors.