Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s first feature film since Pola X, in 1999, is less a chronological narrative than series of vivid performances. Monsieur Oscar (played by Carax’s frequent collaborator Denis Lavant) travels in his limousine from one “appointment” to another, performing roles, each one more outre than the other: he’s an old beggar woman one moment and a weird goblin (Merde, from Carax’s short in Tokyo!) the next. At times Céline (Edith Scob) seems to be his driver and secretary, but at times she, too, plays parts in his performances. Twice he appears mortally wounded after failed attempts to assassinate his own double in different guises. When his limo crashes into another car, he meets a colleague (Kylie Minogue), also on her way to an appointment. She bursts into song in the middle of their conversation. A manager-like person (Michel Piccoli) appears at one point to check on Mr. Oscar, noting that the actor seems tired of his craft. Mr. Oscar, it turns out, has been performing for a long time, since when cameras were big and visible. Now, one can no longer see them and cannot know whether someone is actually watching.
Holy Motors’ basic philosophical point, that “life is theater,” is a bit too obvious. Other aspects of the film may seem a bit too academic. Citations from other movies abound, including Carax’s own and those of his cast (Scob at one point dons a mask that might be from Eyes without a Face). As these allusions accumulate, what might have been clues become irrelevant by the next episode. And, much like a carousel, the ride itself is engaging, the visual invention compelling, as when Mr. Oscar performs elaborate moves for motion capture, his bodysuit pocked with light, or when a goblin in green whisks a stunning model in a golden dress (Eva Mendez) from a photo shoot. As he runs with her through a cemetery, each gravestone is carved with a URL and a plea to “Visit my website.”
Holy Motors belongs in a “whimsical cinema” subgenre, together with Wes Anderson’s movies, including the opening film at Cannes this year, Moonrise Kingdom. Built like an intricate dollhouse from the year 1965, when the action is set, it features odd characters, unbelievable turns of the plot, and an abundance of colorful visual and aural details.
On an island off the coast of New England (the film was filmed in Rhode Island), two precocious 12-year-old pen pals in love escape their unbearable lives and travel the length of a local Indian trail together. Suzy (a very serious Kara Hayward, wearing lots of mascara) is a sister of three annoying younger brothers, with no friends at school, and is dangerous when provoked. The film begins with a now familiar sort of Andersonian gesture, the camera panning from floor to floor and across breakaway walls to show her family’s home, while the brothers listen to Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, instruction and art at once.
Suzy takes her brother’s record player with her on her escape with Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan and a Khaki Scout with excellent wilderness survival skills. Hated by his fellow scouts, Sam seems short for his age and never takes off his glasses and coonskin cap. A variety of oddball characters set out to find them: Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), a lonely local cop (Bruce Willis), a heartless social services representative (Tilda Swinton), and Suzy’s dysfunctional parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).
The runaways endure an armed conflict with the Khaki Scouts, a storm, a fire, a lighting strike, all to suggest that love might triumph over all. Delightful and colorful, Moonrise Kingdom piles up images much like Holy Motors, though here in the form of era-appropriate props that might have come from your grandmother’s attic. It also even offers an expert narrator (Bob Balaban, in red fingerless gloves) who offers historical and environmental trivia to match the visuals. For all their films’ differences in depth and address, both Anderson and Carax explore the playful possibilities of their chosen art.