You may be of the opinion that taking in an art film, especially the haute brand that disdains conventional narrative, is like watching paint dry. If so, happy surprise, Holy Motors is definitely the art film for you – it's like watching paint blister. Greasepaint, in this case, since the central figure is an actor/chameleon whose makeup is as changeable as his makeup, layers peeling off only to reveal other layers. The blistering is ferocious.
Indeed, ferocity is the watchword here – not only in the pace of the bizarre and disparate incidents that power the movie, but also in the intelligence of the man who drives and directs it. His smarts, like his talent, are palpable and thus motivating, encouraging us to find in these frames precisely what we seek beyond them – some method in the seeming madness.
The man is Leos Carax. In the wake of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Pola X, this is his first feature in 13 years, which might explain why he inserts himself right into its opening sequence, a shot of an audience frozen in place at a movie theatre. Cut to Carax awakening from a slumber, using a finger-key to open a fantastic door that leads back to the theatre, where his job clearly is to also awaken that benumbed audience. Or perhaps only to promote a better dream. Or a more vibrant nightmare. In any case, what follows is surreal and often disturbing and sometimes poignant and always mesmerizing. Mission accomplished.
Here's how. Carax quickly gives way to his long-time collaborator, Denis Lavant, the actor/chameleon in question. He appears as Mr. Oscar, an apparent businessman chauffeured in a white limousine by the impassive Celine (Edith Scob), who drives him through Paris from morning to midnight. Within the limo's oddly vast interior, stuffed with latex and costumes, Mr. Oscar heads off on his various "appointments," each stop requiring his metamorphosis into a separate character engaged in a different activity. Different yet equally strange.
He's a stooped old woman begging for alms on a heavily trafficked bridge. He's an acrobat in a motion-capture suit, performing an erotic and undeniably beautiful dance with a like-suited femme. He's Monsieur Merde, a one-eyed and priapic gargoyle who kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) from a fashion shoot in Père Lachaise cemetery, whereupon the Beast totes the Beauty deep into the catacombs, then rearranges her sexy gown into a confining burqa. He's a killer who morphs into the victim he kills. He's an odious father lecturing his fragile teenage daughter on the sin of being "unpopular." He's a dying old man consoled by a caring niece, at least until they both abandon their roles for the next appointment. And he's an ex-lover whose ex-love (Kylie Monogue) breaks into plaintive song: "What would we've become/ If we'd done/ Differently back then?"
He's all of these persons and, of course, none of them. However, since Carax shoots each episode with such urgency and flair, we're caught up in the journey, not in full possession of its meaning, but emotionally susceptible to its compelling rhythms – feeling, for example, charmed by the dancers, fearful of Merde, sympathetic toward the abused daughter, and moved by love's labours lost. In other words, even amid the obvious role-playing and the endless artifice, our feelings are real. Yes, it's a familiar predicament.
So (familiar too) our minds struggle to find sense in this scary, touching, funny, sad nonsense. There are several options. Cinephiles may pride themselves in catching the multiple homages to other films and filmmakers – to Jean Cocteau, to David Lynch, to Jacques Demy and, especially (when the actress Scob dons a mask in tribute to her role in Eyes Without a Face), to Georges Franju. Philosophers may regard the odyssey as a futile search for essence within the shifting shapes of existence. Sociologists, taking their cue from the title, may trace how technology – large clumsy cars, small efficient cameras, cunning cellphones – courses through the picture as a twin force both elevating and alienating.
The rest of us may simply be content to marvel at a potent display of imagination that cuts with its own double edge: Imagination can incarcerate and it can liberate. Consequently, surrounded by these blistering images, our brain is trapped even as our senses are freed – life's unholy predicament and art's holy delight.