A Sleeper rises from his bed and, accompanied by his large dog, walks to a door and turns the lock. The door leads to the balcony of a movie palace, whose audience watches a silent film as the dog patrols the aisles. The movie that follows could be the Sleeper’s dream or an eccentric synopsis of 130 yeas of cinema history, from the motion experiments of the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s to today’s motion-capture digital technology. But Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which astounded and outraged critics at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is no sleepwalk; it’s an exhilarating trip of movie madness and sadness.
Like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, also in the Cannes Competition, Holy Motors follows a man in a stretch limousine as he completes various appointments. The similarities end there, since Oscar (Denis Lavant, quirky star of nearly every Carax film) is lively and ready to try any “assignment” that his elegant chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob) hands him from “the agency.” Oscar might be a superspy, but he’s certainly an actor — perhaps The Actor. In the limo, which is large enough to house a makeup table and a considerable cache of artillery, Oscar prepares for the roles of a beggarwoman, a concerned father, a wistful lover, an old man on his deathbed (which he shares with the Sleeper’s dog) and the anarchic Monsieur Merde, a beast who kidnaps Eva Mendes from a glamour shoot in Père Lachaise cemetery for an interlude in his underground lair. At the end of a sequence Oscar pauses, in a miming of the actor’s “And scene!”, and discusses with his partner what their next gigs are. Art is always colliding with artifice here.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Cosmopolis at Cannes)
Carax, 51, made the heralded Boy Meets Girl and Bad Blood by the time he was 25, then marked time with just two more features, The Lovers on the Bridge and Pola X, in his next quarter century. Now he enters a vigorous second prime. With a French father and an American mother (Joan Dupont, the longtime film journalist for the International Herald Tribune), Carax has the mix of movie cultures in his genes. Holy Motors runs mad, hysterical, naked through Hollywood and continental film tropes: gangster pastiches, heavy melodrama and a big musical number, with Kylie Minogue singing the romantic ballad “Who Were We” as she and Alex wander to the roof of the abandoned Samaritaine department store. Throwing in a family of monkeys, talking limos and a raging erection for good measure, Holy Motors slinks through Paris, its streets, sewers and rooftops, like the mysterious criminals in Louis Feuillade’s wondrous serials from a century ago: Fantomas, Les Vampires and Judex.
(READ: Richard Corliss on Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires)
The director’s trek through film history has a special focus on the year of his birth, 1960 — when Piccoli got his first movie role; when Jean Seberg, of whom Minogue is an avatar, appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless; and when Scob played the masked, disfigured daughter in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (at the end she dons that mask). Like most traditional cinephiles, Carax suspects that film as we know it, and perhaps the moviegoing experience, is dead. When Oscar’s benefactor (Michel Piccoli), dropping into the limo for a chat, mentions that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the actor replies, “And if there’s no more beholder?” Asked why, then, he continues his job, Oscar says, “For the beauty of the act.” He does it because he’s always done it, and because he does it so well. As Samuel Beckett wrote, “I can’t go on, I must go on.” And while this classicist-surrealist denounces the virtual world (the gravestones in Père Lachaise read, “Visit my website”) and demonstrates, through his film’s ravishing digital cinematography, that virtual can be voluptuous.
Whatever else it is, Holy Motors is a two-hour product reel for its prodigious, protean star. “If Denis had said no,” Carax has said, “I would have offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin. Or to Peter Lorre or Michel Simon” (the last an inspirartion for the Monsieur Merde character). The director was being puckish; they’re all dead, and Lavant is his career-long alter ego. Carax might also have considered Andy Serkis, the dour-faced, acrobatic actor who, with the aid of movie technologies such a motion-capture, has played King Kong, Gollum and Caesar, the chimp who leads the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Then this would have been a Serkis Circus.
At times the invention gets wearying; Holy Motors might best be seen with pauses for reflection between each segment. But cinema and the adventurers remaining in its audience need the occasional movie that moves, explodes, exasperates, astounds and Holy Motors does that. It is a transporting vehicle.