It seems that we stuffy Americans, set in our movie formulas, need a freaky French film to come along and shake us up every so often, and avant garde filmmaker Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” definitely fits the bill.
Although it’s as all over the place as it is all over Paris – like something “Amélie” and “The City of Lost Children” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet cinematically vomited – Carax’s über-experimental film, his first full-length feature since 1999’s “Pola X,” is a weird, wild piece of work that must be seen to be believed.
But be warned, with its displays of violence, graphic nudity and its demented sense of humor, many people won’t want to believe it.
Denis Lavant stars as the eccentric Mr. Oscar, whom we meet being driven around Paris by his associate Céline (Édith Scob) in a white limousine that functions as his dressing room. With make-up, mirrors, wigs, props and a crate of weapons, he goes from appointment to appointment. The appointments are in various locations in which Lavant appears in costume and acts out a scene, often disrupting and baffling passers-by.
Lavant, who is credited for playing a dozen characters in the film, appears in public as a series of diverse personas including a hunchbacked beggar lady, a gold-chain wearing greasy gangster, an ailing elderly man on his deathbed a la Igmar Bergman, an accordion player leading a marching band (one of the most joyous scenes), and a motion-capture artist who engages in simulated sex.
Our chameleon’s job is never explained, but bit by bit we gather that Lavant is acting for an unseen audience through cameras that he complains were once bigger than us, but now can’t be seen at all.
Each of the vignettes can be seen as representing individual genres, all combined into a grand summation of the state of current cinema, in which Carax has to somewhat stubbornly deal with the digital age. (The film is Carax’s first shot in the digital format.)
In one of the film’s strangest scenes, Lavant reprises the role of Monsieur Merde the Troll who appeared in Carax’s short in the 2008 anthology film “Tokyo!” Lavant crazily menaces tourists and mourners while munching on floral arrangements at Père Lachaise cemetery, where the grave-sites have website addresses instead of the usual inscriptions.
Lavant’s Merde then disturbs a fashion photo shoot of an expressionless Eva Mendes, whom he abducts and takes back to his cave.
I won’t tell you what happens next, just that it involves full frontal male nudity and Mendes singing lullabyes.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to understand what any of that means, but probably not.
“Holy Motors” is also connected to Carax’s third film “The Lovers On The Bridge” (1991) with the appearance of one of that film’s major locations, the La Samaritaine department store, which is sentimentally visited by Lavant (who also starred in the earlier film) and Kylie Minogue as a former co-worker.
Minogue enforces the musical genre theme as she helps wrap up the film with a song titled “Who Were We?” written by Carax and Neil Hannon.
By linking his films together and blending his motifs with those of influences such as Jean-Luc Godard and Alexander Sokurov, and imagery from Georges Franju’s 1959 French horror classic “Eyes Without a Face,” which was actress Scob’s second film, Carax has made a spicy, surreal feast of a film.
It’s certainly not for every taste, but lovers of challenging art who are sick of being spoon-fed by the mainstream movie system will be delighted to take a bite.