He rises from bed in the night, steps over a dog, and carefully feels his way along an expanse of wallpaper—like May in her membranous motel room in Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. He’s seeking a portal, perhaps to another dimension, perhaps just to a movie theatre, this man who, we’ll soon realize, can become anyone. (He’s played by who else but the inimitable, intensely physical actor Denis Lavant.) We call this man Monsieur Oscar, and once he finds his way through that papered wall and, it would seem, down some sort of rabbit hole, we then cut to the start of his workday, though surely Oscar’s strange activities, each of them supernatural feats of role-play for clients never identified and for purposes left obscure, should best be considered a vocation, or even a cosmic obligation.
In suit and tie, Oscar leaves his compound, cheerfully waves adieu to the kids, passes by his ample security staff, and enters his stretch limo, which is piloted by Oscar’s Girl Friday, a slim, ivory-haired, ravishingly beautiful septuagenarian (Edith Scob, most famous as the titular non-visage in the horror classic Eyes Without a Face). She alerts him to the day’s itinerary. Oscar prepares for each of his gigs from his mobile office, which is equipped with a bulb-framed mirror, costumes and make-up. (Only Cosmopolis displays a car with more vital amenities.) First stop: Oscar disguises himself as a hunched-over old lady muttering to herself on a busy bridge. Soon after he’s donning a black full-body jumpsuit adorned with little white balls and entering a Tronosphere, where he meets a similar female creature in similar garb with whom he play-fights and faux-sexes with acrobatic panache. Is this already sounding weird? People, you all don’t know the half of it.
Maybe Monsieur Oscar is simply the world’s hardest working actor. Maybe, like the hapless hero of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, he’s simply trapped in an existence that morphs every time he turns around, and all he can do is adapt. Maybe Leos Carax, the compulsively inventive writer/director of Holy Motors, just wants to send Levant—his ferociously talented muse, Harpo Marx, Jacques Tati, Jackie Chan and Lon Chaney all rolled into one wiry, putty-faced Frenchman—on a paid holiday to an ever-unfurling dreamscape, made of one-part reality, one-part unconscious roaming, one-part cinephilia. There’s no road map for Holy Motors, so best do away with your search for clear answers from the get-go. You’ll have more fun that way.
For those who saw the recent anthology film Tokyo!, you’ll be pleased to discover that Carax has resurrected Levant’s milky-eyed, mayhem-making leprechaun, who this time around surfaces from a Paris sewer, gobbles cemetery flowers, bites the fingers off a fashion photographer’s assistant and abducts a zombified Eva Mendes from a glamour shoot. Later Oscar will enter an abandoned warehouse full of mannequin parts and meet up with Kylie Minogue, a fellow career changeling, or maybe a secret agent, from somewhere in his past, and she’ll sing a sad and powerful song that asks ‘Who Are We?’ The unbearable truth is that the answer just keeps changing, scene by scene, moment by moment, as does this luxuriant, restless, ultra-bizarre and hugely enjoyable film. Identity is fluid: this is a fact that also makes for great fantasy, a fantasies at the heart of movie-love. This movie understands that fantasy like few others do.