The key to enjoying Leos Carax’s mad masterpiece Holy Motors — and this is just a guess, because this film has no precedent, and no two people are likely to interpret it the same way — comes right at the beginning, when we witness a theater audience watching a movie, basking in the light reflecting off the screen. Behind a wall at the rear of the auditorium, in the spot where the projectionist’s booth would normally be, a man wakes up, unlocks a hidden door with a finger-key and then looks down at the crowd, turning the watchers into the watched. Holy Motors is, among other things, a movie about seeing, and in that moment I think Carax is telling us he’s going to study us just as closely as we study his film.
Then an enormous dog strolls down the theater aisle without explanation. From this point forward, you’re on your own, because I’m out of answers. Holy Motors is the first movie Carax has directed since 2006’s Pola X, and it feels like it came to him in a feverish, inspired dream — as if he jotted it all down when he woke up to ensure he remembered it and then felt he had to make, without truly understanding why. The central premise is simple: Oscar (Beau Travail’s great Denis Lavant) spends all day riding around Paris in an enormous white limo driven by his secretary/agent Céline (Edith Scob). She gives him various assignments, all of which require Oscar to transform himself physically (the back of the limo houses a dressing room) and play a brief role in some ongoing drama.
In one stop, he’s a hunchbacked old lady begging for change on the street. In another, he’s an actor in a motion-capture animation movie that involves sex and violence. At an outdoor café, he guns down a man and is shot by his bodyguards.
What happens in Holy Motors isn’t important (although a Kylie Minogue musical number deserves a shout-out). People who demand logic and narrative from their movies are better off staying away and perhaps hiding under their beds, just to be safe. Like David Lynch, Carax doesn’t grant many interviews, because he probably hates explaining his work, or more likely doesn’t know how. This is filmmaking straight from the subconscious, but there’s real feeling and beauty and humor here, too: It’s not some loose string of bizarre scenarios strung together and masquerading as Art. Holy Motors is a lot of fun, in part because it’s so well made and in part because you never know what’s coming next (why, exactly, have Oscar’s wife and kids suddenly turned into chimpanzees?).
This is the second film released this year set largely inside a limo, after David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. That one was dense and cerebral. Holy Motors is wild and unfettered and playful — the work of an artist who carries his love of cinema in his bones, and knows how to share that affection with the audience.
Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue.
Writer-director: Leos Carax.
Producers: Martine Marignac, Albert Prévost, Maurice Tinchant.
An Indomina Media release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, brief violence, gore, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.