“Bizarre” doesn’t even begin to describe Holy Motors, the first film in twelve years from French director Leos Carax. But if you’re willing to endure what are sure to be some of the strangest sequences you’ll see on film, you’ll be rewarded with a refreshingly unique story and a lead performance that rivals (and possibly eclipses) Joaquin Phoenix’s work in The Master as the best of 2012.
The film centers around Oscar, an actor of sorts who is driven from appointment to appointment in Paris in the back of a white limo. Oscar isn’t an actor for film or television, though: he’s acting in real life, transforming himself in the dressing room in the backseat of the limo and emerging as a completely different persona each time. At one point, he poses as a young woman’s bedridden uncle whom she never got the proper chance to say goodbye to, and in this scenario, the woman is “in on” Oscar’s performance. But it’s not always so clear who exactly he is performing for, and who knows that he’s an actor.
The film’s batsh*t crazy centerpiece follows Oscar as he dons a green suit, wild hair, long, curved fingernails, and ferociously wanders the streets until he stumbles across a photo shoot with a gorgeous model (Eva Mendes). He kidnaps her and brings her to his lair underground, where he gets completely naked (massive erection on full display) and simply lays in her lap as she sings him a lullaby. Fade to black. Fade up. Oscar’s back in the limo, moving on to his next appointment, with no further mention of the previous events. WTF.
Carax challenges the audience with each scenario, but he manages to do so lovingly and with a sense of awe, as if even he can’t believe the possibilities of film that he’s unlocked here. For as overtly strange as Holy Motors undoubtedly is, it’s also completely devoid of pretension, something I cannot say about this year’s other independent film sensation, Beasts of the Southern Wild. But the most important iconic and memorable element here is Denis Lavant, who gives a titanic performance as he constantly shifts between personas, sometimes even switches sexes in the process. Along with his changes in posture and movement, he’s aided by terrific practical prosthetics and kept on schedule by his driver, Celine (Edith Scob).
The abrupt changes take a while to get used to, but once the deeper messages Carax is going for become apparent – namely highlighting the power of performance and calling into question everything we think we know about the medium of film – it’s much easier to settle in and let the movie whisk you away to its weird little world. After an awesome intermission breakdown with accordions (one of the film’s best moments), and a small appearance by Kylie Minogue while the film briefly turns into a musical, you’re either hooked into Carax’s world, or you’re completely disconnected. If you can set aside expectations and the concept of traditional filmmaking, there’s a lot to like about Holy Motors, but mainstream American audiences will almost certainly not embrace the film’s unconventional appeal. That’s a shame, because they’ll be missing out on Lavant’s truly masterful performance and an exuberance of exploratory filmmaking that is rare to find in multiplexes circa 2012. Until next time…