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A Man Among (Many) Men

French Director Léos Carax sends viewers on a superb, surreal jaunt

Léos Carax’s baffling, magical Rorschach blot of a film, Holy Motors, is a magic mirror: It gives you what you want from it. If you think it’s funny, you’ll be amused; if you think it’s serious, you’ll be somber. If you want to figure out what it all means, your options are plentiful: It’s a mosaic of modern life, and the roles we play for each other; it’s a vision of personal reinvention, a filmmaker stepping back into feature films after more than a decade; it’s an exploration of the glory and wear of performance of all kinds: the little part played by a woman you pass on the street, or the larger roles played by parents and children. If you’re familiar with Carax’s previous work (The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X), something more intimate and self-referential emerges from these vignettes: one features Carax’s daughter, and another revisits a character from one of his shorts. Carax himself appears in an opening sequence, walking into a theater after opening a door with a key that’s grown from his hand.

But Holy Motors mostly follows one man, Oscar (Denis Lavant), as he becomes many men (and one woman) over the course of a day and night. Ferried about in a white limo by Céline (Edith Scob), Oscar goes to appointments, appearing as a different person each time: a villain in a tracksuit, a tired father, a beggar. Who makes the appointments is irrelevant; a file appears in the back of the limo, and Oscar transforms himself as required. Riding with him is like being backstage as dreams are formed. You need no context, only a willingness to go along with each new character.

Watching the transformations does little to explain them — or what Carax means to accomplish with his strange film, which feels esoteric, true, absurd and personal all at once. It’s too beautifully pieced together to be dismissed as a goof, a surreal jaunt over the rainbow and through someone else’s psyche, but it’s also playful and brisk, a constantly morphing tale of change and connection. A photographer mutters “Beauty! Beauty!” as he shoots photos of stone-faced model Kay M (Eva Mendes), changing his chant to “Weird! Weird!” when he sees Oscar as the green-suited, flower-eating Merde. (In the strangest sequence, Merde absconds with Kay M, who barely bats an elaborate false eyelash as she is transformed.) 

Holy Motors springs from the head of Léos Carax, but sits in the palm of Denis Lavant. It couldn’t exist without both of them, without the perfect pairing of Carax’s vision and Lavant’s presence. His shifts in gait and posture, malleable face and deep sense of tiredness (all in contrast with Céline’s white-suited consistency) lead us deftly into each new scenario. Somehow, Lavant simultaneously makes it look easy, and like a wearing, exhausting lifetime of work. Oscar is an artist unlike any I’ve previously seen on film. Watch Holy Motors for Levant’s performance, at the very least — there’s no telling what else you’ll take away from it.

HOLY MOTORS: Written and directed by Léos Carax. Cinematography, Caroline Champetier. Editing, Nelly Quettier. Starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. Indomina Group, 2012. Not rated. 115 minutes. Four stars.