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Those who love this anarchic new movie from France’s enfant terrible of the cinema and those who hate it can be heard exclaiming much the same thing at its conclusion: “Holy Motors, holy moly! What the hell just happened and, moreover, what does it all mean?" Although I most definitely side with the lovers of Holy Motors, I remain a bit puzzled about its ultimate meaning two months after seeing it at this fall’s Fantastic Fest. Of one thing I’m confident, however: This is the most intrepid and madcap movie to hit our shores in some time. Yet for all its disruptive energy, Holy Motors is also a thing of sublime beauty.
Carax’s film will no doubt strike a deep resonance among cinephiles due to its wry observations about life, virtual reality, shifting identities, and our collective storehouse of cinematic imagery. The film opens, in fact, with a dreamer (played by Leos Carax) who rises from his bed to search the walls of his room, which are lined with two-dimensional images of trees. Finding just the right hole in the wallpaper, the dreamer unlocks the imagery by inserting his finger, which is shaped like a key, into the hole. He is then on the other side, in the aisle of a cinema, where a packed audience is watching King Vidor’s The Crowd.
Holy Motors’ central figure, however, is Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), if due only to his accretion of characters. An amazing actor known for his transformative appearance from film to film, it is appropriate that Lavant plays Oscar, who adopts at least 10 different personas throughout Holy Motors. We first see him as a banker leaving his ultramodern home and entering the back of a limo to head to work. His chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob, the star of the classic film, Eyes Without a Face, which is referenced in the film’s closing moments) drives Oscar to his various “appointments.” Each stop requires Oscar to make dramatic use of wigs, stage makeup, and disguises. At one “appointment” he appears as a hunched beggar woman; at another he is a stop-motion actor in a spandex suit who pantomimes lovemaking; then he transforms into a mad goat of a man who knocks people over, munches on flowers, tromps through Père Lachaise cemetery (where all the tombstones read “Visit My Website”), and dresses a high-fashion model in a burka. On it goes until late into the night: a gangsterlike interlude in an underground parking garage, a tearful father/daughter exchange, a romantic sequence on the roof of Paris’ biggest department store, and more. Scenes contrast and accumulate while building a sense of total surrealism. All the while, the city of Paris crisply gleams.
Holy Motors is as individualistic a movie as you’re likely to encounter – both in terms of the filmmaker’s intent and the viewer’s takeaway. Warmth and humor abide within its every frame but, like Carax’s dreamer at the film’s outset, you must find the key within yourself that unlocks the mysteries.