Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Yes, I’ve seen “Holy Motors,” but I’m hard-pressed to tell you what it’s about. This fascinating French film is a surreal puzzlement. The hardcore film buffs who watched it with me were left shaking their heads.
Director Leos Carax wants you to scratch your head, I think.
In it, a man known as Mr. Oscar rides to work in a big white limousine driven by his associate Céline. Mr. Oscar seems to be a master of disguises, at one location posing as an old beggar woman, at another as a gibberish-speaking madman who kidnaps a fashion model and drags her into the city’s sewers, at another is a dying man visited by a young woman … among many others.
We voyeuristically travel along with him and his livery driver, watching him change costumes in the back of the limo, then be dropped off at his next appointment. From musical numbers to gangster shootouts to simulated sex on a stop-motion soundstage to picking up his daughter after a party, we’re never sure what’s real and what’s not.
But mostly not, you can assume.
The one thing we do know is that we’re watching a masterful kaleidoscopic performance by French actor Denis Lavant (“Boy Meets Girl,” “Beau Travail”). The pug-faced chameleon is a favorite of Leos Carax, who has collaborated with him on several films (“Lovers on the Bridge,” “Tokyo!”).
For “Holy Motors,” the director wanted a Lon Chaney or Charlie Chaplin. Or Lavant …who played a Chaplin impersonator in Harmony Korine’s “Mr. Lonely.”
Édith Scob joins Lavant as Céline, sort of a Charon ferrying him about a Parisian Styx in the white limo. Punctuating the cast is Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, and Michel Piccoli. And Carax himself appears in the opening scene as an enigmatic character called Le Dormeur (“The Sleeper”).
Leos Carax sees his film as “a science fiction scenario where organisms and visible machines share a common superfluity.” Yep, a vast underground garage of limos serves as part of the cast.
As for these limos, Carax says, “They’re outdated, like the old futurist toys of the past. I think they mark the end of an era, the era of large, visible machines.” These so-called Holy Motors seem to link Mr. Oscar to some sort of parallel universes in the film.
Moviegoers seem to like “Holy Motors” even if they don’t understand it. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 91% rating. Critics describe the film as “captivating and compelling,” “weird and wonderful,” and “the stuff of cinema itself.”
Even if you’re not familiar with Leos Carax’s films, I think this is one time it’s okay to take a ride from a stranger.