The acclaimed French art movie Holy Motors has been out in the United States for a few weeks, but it just expanded wide — including coming to San Francisco. And it's every bit as bizarre and jarring as you've probably heard. This pomo "fantasy action" film is beautiful and baffling — and sort of does for acting what Inception did for dreams.
Minor spoilers ahead... And by "minor spoilers," I mean those of you who never watch movie trailers should stop reading now. Everyone else should be fine.
In Holy Motors, we follow Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) who's sort of an actor, sort of a performance artist, and sort of... something else, something sort of baffling and possibly supernatural. He travels around in a stretch limousine, and we follow him as he goes to "appointments" where he becomes different people. He might be a disabled old homeless woman, or a sewer-dwelling maniac who kidnaps a supermodel, or a control-freak father who picks up his daughter after a party. But for each of these engagements, M. Oscar transforms himself completely, using makeup and prosthetics to become a new person. His scenes are no mere impersonations, but instead are intense dramatic confrontations, with people who often seem not to be in on the secret of M. Oscar's imposture.
Oh, and in one segment he randomly puts on a mocap suit and fights invisible monsters and then has crazy alien sex.
The whole thing is deliberately surreal and messed up, in the grand tradition of bonkers French art movies, and by the time Kylie Minogue shows up and sings a tragic ballad about being trapped by your choices, you're either completely sucked in or kind of puzzled and dazed.
But even if the celebration of artifice and actorly cunning doesn't especially appeal to you, Denis Lavant's versatile, intense performance will probably draw you in — even though you're watching a performance inside a performance most of the time. He broods and stares and uses his sullen brow to great effect, no matter how much makeup he's covered in or how transformed he is. Meanwhile, director Leos Carax creates an urban landscape as versatile and occasionally monstrous as M. Oscar himself. And Edith Scob anchors the whole thing as the prim, dignified chauffeur Céline — until she, too, reveals a freaky side.
And Holy Motors does succeed in playing some impressive tricks on the viewer. At first, you think you're just on board for a dissection of identity, plain and simple — what makes us the people we are? How much are we a product of our histories, and how much are we simply playing a role that the world demands of us? And so on. But as the film proceeds, the format of M. Oscar taking on different roles and acting out different personas that fit into people's lives gets more and more disturbed and complicated. The format gets more and more broken up, so that after a while you're not sure whether you're watching one of M. Oscar's performances or M. Oscar being himself.
The little playlets also seem to be commenting on genre at times, with some of them veering closer to genres like "action movie" or "gangster movie" and others seeming like earnest attempts at family drama or romance.
And that's sort of what I mean when I say this film does for acting what Inception did for dreams. We, the audience, are aware that we're watching an actor play M. Oscar, who takes on the roles of various different people throughout his journeys. But then, there are times when you're not sure if M. Oscar is breaking character, or if the character he's playing is, in turn, taking on a disguise or becoming a third character. And then there's the whole "mo-cap" sequence, where he's impersonating an actor impersonating a monster. Also, as the film goes along, the question of whether the people taking part in M. Oscar's performances are in on it gets more and more complicated — and you start to get some weird insights into what might actually be going on in M. Oscar's head while he's doing all this crazy shit.
And this film is really, really crazy and over-the-top, in ways that I won't go into here for fear of getting excessively spoilery. Suffice to say, this is not a film to watch with your kids — and however loopy you expect the film to get, you're probably not prepared for some of the lunacy that unfolds here. Especially in the Eva Mendes sequence, and the final sequence. In fact, the nuttiness gets so ridiculous that you start to wonder if the whole film is supposed to be a comedy — and then you hit one of those intense emotional scenes that feels utterly sincere. Holy Motors keeps you off guard.
And there are all sorts of weird little touches that comment on the artificiality of the real world. Like the limo that M. Oscar rides around in has a screen that can show M. Oscar the view through the windshield — except that you're never sure if it's the real street or just a recording, and sometimes it transforms into a weird infrared view.
Holy Motors is one of those films that only leaves you more mystified the longer you watch it, and you start to wonder if all of this dress-up play is as sacred and spiritual as the film's title suggests. And yet, there's also something of barbarism and idolatry about M. Oscar's elaborate disguises and personae. And maybe that's the point of Holy Motors, for all its sophistication and its fancy car — to suggest that the most sacred things in life are both totally artificial and weirdly primal.