Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) is picked up from his home by a stretch limo. The day-in-the-life tale that unfolds, as he travels around Paris adopting a different role in each place he visits, redefines the word peculiar.
There is nothing about Holy Motors that isn’t weird. It’s directed by unorthodox Frenchman Leos Carax — an anagram of the first two words of his real name, Alex Oscar Dupont — who claims that he considered Lon Chaney and Charlie Chaplin for the lead role. It’s a freewheeling, kaleidoscopic tale that takes in talking cars, gloopy alien CG sex and a hobo with a hard-on. Perhaps strangest of all, it’s a film featuring Kylie Minogue that’s a contender for the best of the year.
Thirteen whole years have passed since Carax’s last odd opus, Pola X, which at one point featured a full orchestra playing industrial rock in a warehouse. Unsurprisingly, he’s had a bit of trouble getting financing for his projects, including an English-language film he hoped to shoot in London. Frustrated, Carax began taking long walks around Paris, trying to dream up a low-budget vehicle for his muse, Denis Lavant. Noticing an abundance of stretch limousines and one particular old gypsy woman he kept passing on a bridge, he slowly devised Holy Motors: a portmanteau tale in which a man spends a long day being shuttled around a city, playing different roles for a camera crew which may or may not be there.
The story is willfully bizarre. As such, there’s plenty of potential for it to turn into two hours of swampy symbolism that only people in berets who eat muesli in cinemas would appreciate. Instead, there’s a joyously cheeky spirit on display that keeps it moving like a thriller. The director himself turns up at the start, as himself, to welcome the audience to the picture. Then we’re launched into Monsieur Oscar’s bizarre automotive odyssey (after Cosmopolis, this is the second film of 2012 in which the on-edge protagonist rides around town in a limo). A Chinese box of a narrative, we’re invited to guess whether the character is edging closer or further away from his true identity with each new ‘appointment’. Where does the fiction end and the man begin? Carax delights in yanking the film’s tone in strange directions: a moving deathbed scene ends with a comedy punchline, while an absurd episode involving the hero playing a crazed tramp builds to a haunting lullaby, sung by Eva Mendes.
The supporting cast — Mendes, in a supermodel role written for Kate Moss; Edith Scob as elegant limo-driver Céline; Michel Piccoli as a mysterious man with a birthmark — are all strong. But it’s essentially a one-man show, and Lavant is astonishing. Convincing whether he’s playing an elderly crone, an accordionist blasting out a catchy cover version of R. L. Burnside’s Let My Baby Ride, or a latex-clad mo-cap artist in a studio sequence that plays out like an Andy Serkis acid trip, it’s the kind of full-throttle, physical performance that nets Oscars — if the film it’s in wasn’t the type to give Oscar-voters heart attacks.
Finally, there’s the inevitable question: what does it all mean? There’s no shortage of scope for theories. Rich with references to films including King Vidor’s The Crowd, Chaplin’s Modern Times and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête, it could be a statement on the movie industry and the lunacy of the acting profession. It might be a philosophical take on life and the different roles we all have to play. It may even be about man’s uneasy, shifting relationship with technology. Ultimately, though, when you’ve got Kylie as an air stewardess, belting out a song by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon in an empty department store, does meaning even matter?
Splashing around in the same mad puddle as Lynch but a good deal funnier, this tale of a man with many faces is an exhilarating, audacious, lunatic rocket-ride. Hop on board.