If you only see one movie this weekend, make it the dozen or so embedded in Leos Carax’s excellent Holy Motors, the French director’s experimental new limited release which nonetheless feels invigoratingly familiar. After taking a 12 year hiatus (his last film being 1999′s Pola X) Carax returns not with a modest or meek project but a swaggering and smart, winningly passionate dissertation on film and what it is to make it, while simultaneously sidestepping any dryness or pretension about his heady themes and delivering pure entertainment par excellence.
Like a Flying Wallenda, Carax gleefully prances along a tightrope, helped to balance by a career defining central performance from the already much lauded Denis Lavant (Claire Denis’ Beau Travail). Episodic but never disjointed, bawdy and then deathly serious and yet tonally consistent, beautiful and disgusting, Holy Motors really is a triumph and easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. If you live in a city where it’s showing you must attend.
The opening sequence nicely encapsulates the binaries embodied by the movie. A man (played by Carax) is awoken suddenly in a darkened bedroom, and walks to his window to reveal what appears to be the end of a runway, complete with a landing plane. Unbothered by this he walks to a wall made of trees, and feels out a small keyhole in it. Lifting his hand, we see that his ring finger is in fact a giant key, which he uses to open the door and enter a lush movie theater, filled with sleeping patrons as the projector runs. Now this sequence is chock full of symbolism, ideas, and significance (especially after learning that this film partially came out of the suicide of his wife).
But at the very same time, you get the feeling Carax just thought it was a weird, fun, visually cool scene (key finger!). In that way this film reminds me of David Lynch’s high-camp style. From there we move to the main “narrative”, as the handsomely dressed Carax is picked up in the morning at his mansion by his limo driver (Edith Scob, Eyes Without A Face). But this seeming businessman is quite the opposite, his limo instead stocked with a humorously large and extensive makeup and costume kit. He then attends a series of “appointments”, each as a completely different character.
It’s of no use to spoil all of them, but needless to say the chameleonic Lavant slips whole-heartedly into roles as varied as an old gypsy beggar woman, a star crossed lover, a sub-human subterranean troll (in the film’s most bravura sequence), and a concerned father, all while somehow maintaining a whiff of his “true” character Mr. Oscar (though of course that may be just as much of an act as the other). Trying to figure out exactly what’s going on is no fun (though there are enough hints that it’s not impenetrable), but just belting in for the ride is oodles of it.
No sequence outlasts it’s welcome, and the film is broken up with some grinning musical numbers, and lighthearted rapport between Oscar and the driver. Each character Oscar plays is portrayed as having a convincingly full life that Carax knows exactly when to drop in on, only showing us the best, and the added narrative layer of knowing each is “just” a pantomime makes it all the more interesting. Most excellent indeed.- Whole Milk