Are the movies life or is a life a movie? There are few more tedious questions a film night ask. Still, Léos Carax’s new movie asks it in a way that leaves open a range of answers, its focus on the how the question might be posed and whom it might address. Holy Motors may even be proposing that the line between life and movies has dissolved to the point of being academic. And it may be saying the life has become such a production—such a staged production—that it might as well be a movie.
To that point, or getting around it, Holy Motors is at best an immersive experience. We’re invited to jump into the white stretch limo that Carax sends rolling through the streets of Paris with an actor and provocateur played by Denis Levant, and hang on for what’s to follow. After a wordless introductory scene in a cinema where all the patrons appear to have fallen asleep, we see Levant in the first of his guises, exiting a great blocky modern house done up in the shape of a ship. “Monsieur Oscar” walks past a squadron of bodyguards, says goodbye to the wife and kids, and climbs into the back of his limo. Coiffed and tailored, he is every inch the Master of the Universe, grumbling on his phone to a fellow high-net-worth individual about civil unrest directed at the likes of them: “Bodyguards are no longer enough. We’ve got to get guns, too.”
Instead of being the year’s second film about a billionaire drifting through the modern world’s tumult in an insulated vehicle (Cosmopolis being the first), Holy Motors uses the car as dressing room: Levant enters and exits repeatedly, each time wearing a new outfit and prepared for a new, unexplained “appointment.” Equipped with enough makeup, costumes, and accouterments to service a regional theater company, Levant flips through a binder for instructions and makes himself up to match. At one point, Levant turns himself into a hunched, troll-like creature with gnarled fingernails and a filthy green suit. He charges through a beautiful cemetery, eating flowers out of vases and sending people running, before coming across a fashion photo shoot. It would be unfair to explain any of what happens next, but a stone-faced Eva Mendes is involved and somebody loses a finger.
It’s unclear who is employing Levant, if anybody, who provides the instructions, or why he’s doing any of this. The appointments seem beyond the pale of purposeful employment and yet somebody must be paying for the driver Celine (Edith Scob). And yet her job seems barely related to his performances, as Levant alternates from broadly clownish antics to quiet method study and delicately Chaplin-esque fussiness.
These shifts keep us guessing and off balance, as do occasional violent surprises and a pervasively malevolent sense of mystery. Carax appears less enamored of the shock of the grotesque (though the cemetery scene delivers on that score) than he is of the scene that reveals itself as such. For one appointment, Levant is dressed in a tracksuit and carrying a knife, looking much like a no-name heavy in any modern Euro-crime flick. For another, he puts on a motion-capture suit and reports to a factory-like building filled with others dressed in the same bulb-studded black leotards; here he performs a solo dance that could be spliced into any number of martial arts films. A bedroom deathbed appointment is padded with faux-meaningful dialogue (“If you’ve been hated, you’ve also been adored”) that’s at once too familiar and utterly weird.
If Carax is playing with the notion of film as life, we can’t help but see as well that the conjunction doesn’t make for an especially memorable instance of either. Fortunately, this movie is thick with bravura moments, from a downbeat torch song delivered in a derelict building to Levant leading a spontaneously expanding band in a rousing accordion number inside a cathedral. Holy Motors can seem desperate at times, as if it’s frantically plundering for new ideas in a tired culture. Pondering the possibilities of beauty, one character asks, “What if there’s no more beholder?” Ah yes, the beholder: this is what movies are about, at last, a relationship with viewers, troubled and deep. Whoever is acting, whatever Levant might put on, wherever that limo might take him, he both finds and conjures comedy, curiosity and a healthy dose of despair. Viewers are along for a ride, wild and surreal.