The vertiginous Cloud Atlas was supposed to be this year's cinematic head trip — shuffling identities, scrambling stories, centuries vaulted in the blink of an eye. But 2012 is the year of Holy Motors. With a generous spirit and sense of play, its writer and director, Leos Carax, offers a riot of images and ideas. This is the movie to whip out of your back pocket the next time some twerpy professional handwringer moans that cinema is dead.
No synopsis can convey the movie's greatness, but here goes: In a sleek white limousine driven by his faithful chauffeur, Céline (Édith Scob, from Summer Hours and Georges Franju's enduring Eyes Without a Face), the protean Monsieur Oscar rides through Paris. He's played by the great Denis Lavant, best known in this country for playing Charlie Chaplin in Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely. On his rounds, this shape shifter undertakes various appointments, where he dons makeup, costumes, even ideologies, and interacts with the real world. Assassinations, parenting, motion capture, panhandling, political kidnapping — all in this day's work for Monsieur Oscar.
You can interpret this genre-hopping existence as an actor's life, or you can view Holy Motors as a sci-fi depiction of the leaps in association and transference of identity that make entertainment work. Or you can just surrender to the film's seductive embrace because, above all, this is a playground for movie lovers, with a surprise around every cut. To cinephiles demoralized by CG lens flares and the slow strangulation of 35 mm repertory cinema, Holy Motors offers reassurance that cinematic innovation is both timeless and alive.
For a talent who has faced as many setbacks as Carax has, Holy Motors comes as something more than a triumph — more like a vindication. His last feature, 1999's Pola X (an adaptation of Herman Melville's Pierre), was infamous for its unsimulated sexual content and for being the director's attempted comeback after the catastrophic financial loss of 1991's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. In the 13 years since, Carax has made only one other film, a short segment in the omnibus Tokyo! (It introduced Lavant's rampaging id-pimp M. Merde, who briefly hijacks Holy Motors.) Several projects that never came to fruition over those years inspired some of the scenarios here. So did the deaths of Pola X's two leads, Guillaume Depardieu and Yekaterina Golubeva — the latter Carax's longtime companion and the mother of his daughter, Nastya. Also in that time, 35 mm celluloid began its death spiral, and digital technologies stepped in to take its place.
"We didn't shoot this with a camera," Carax said during the New York Film Festival while promoting Holy Motors. "We shot it with a computer called the Red." And now that every phone and traffic light and laptop includes a camera, the demarcation between movie world and real world can't be determined or differentiated by big camera rigs and organization. The technology is everywhere, and, like Monsieur Oscar — who shares his name not only with his creator (Carax's nom de cinema is an anagram) but with a certain gold statuette — everyone is a star, whether they know it.
But from all this sadness and upheaval, Carax has produced a fireworks display of ecstatic, eye-popping kinesis. (The entr'acte, wherein Lavant leads a grungy bunch on an accordion-fueled marching shred, is deliriously exciting.) It also demonstrates an understanding of the way that audiences take in and respond to information. It provides just enough chance to catch one's breath before diving deeper into the subconscious, where fears of death, isolation, obsolescence and abandonment lie. And it lets Kylie Minogue, the dance-pop hitmaker, play essentially the ghost of Juliette Binoche's character from Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (and make an enormous impact doing it).
Holy Motors is cinematic psychedelia, and your enjoyment will depend on how far you allow yourself to be swept away by it. If that sounds off-putting or too esoteric, it shouldn't — Carax's fevered movie is neither. It's the kind of fun that hooks people for life on a movie theater's communally charged darkness.