Review originally published October 2, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Fantastic Fest.
It’s easy to sum up the wonder of -- and perhaps little else about -- Leos Carax’ “Holy Motors” in one sentence: the story takes place over the course of one day and yet across several lifetimes.
Each of the latter scenarios is an appointment kept by Oscar (Denis Lavant) as part of a mysterious agenda. He is chauffeured around Paris in a white limo driven by the loyal Celine (Edith Scob), and every time that limo stops, he steps out transformed into a different character -- an old beggar, a sad father, even a reprisal of his suit-wearing sewer-dweller from the 2008 anthology “Tokyo!” -- and goes on about his business of blending in.
It’s perhaps fitting that Oscar (Leos’ middle name) is a nod to that golden institution, one which will more than likely ignore Lavant’s feat of suiting each and every scenario with equal, riveting ease. Constantly applying his own make-up, altering his accent, changing his posture, Oscar acts for purposes that aren’t entirely made clear -- the title may be our best hint as to the greater workings afoot -- and yet he admittedly lives to perform. It becomes apparent as the limo carries him to and from appointments that his noble role as an Actor has robbed him of his own life, his own identity, and these asides add a vital undercurrent of melancholy to the otherwise utterly absurd proceedings. If nothing else, the film serves as a substantial showcase for Lavant’s dexterity and sincerity in equal measure.
To that end, “Holy Motors” easily bests the stilted limo theatre of David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” from earlier this year, as each new role of Oscar’s seems to inhabit a new genre (the forthcoming “Cloud Atlas” explores similar ideas to different ends). In one moment, he assassinates his own doppelganger. On another wholly joyous occasion, he leads a band of accordion players in an impromptu cover of “Let My Baby Ride.” Singer Kylie Minogue shows up to provide some surprisingly potent support, while Eva Mendes appears in a “Beauty and the Beast”-like segment that re-defines “being a good sport.” Frankly, if you ever don’t like what’s going on, just give it five minutes to veer off into a different direction.
Some scenes carry the weight of fully lived experiences, as others feel like a fever dream about film itself as art and medium. The title card appears over an audience staring back at the viewer, only for Carax to make a cryptic appearance and arrive in that same movie theater to seemingly kick things off. Are we in turn watching a movie about movies, or a movie about watching, or a movie about acting? (Short answer: yes.) Whatever it is thankfully refuses to suit any one of these labels, and whatever concept ultimately lurks behind its varied plots manages regardless to tap into some fairly simple emotional truths about the roles that both people and performers play in our daily lives.
Parts of this film, I either cannot or will not describe, while other parts, I simply cannot explain. Even if the film’s quicksilver novelty evaporates on a second viewing, there are still plenty of thematic implications to savor atop Lavant’s superb performance(s). In terms of pure cinematic sensation, "Holy Motors" stands as one of the most delightfully enigmatic movies to come around in quite some time.