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Holy Motors

Leos Carax's film about film (and other things) is heady and head-challenging ride

Denis Lavant, as "Oscar," portraying the Wild Man of Pere Lachaise
Denis Lavant, as "Oscar," portraying the Wild Man of Pere Lachaise

Holy Motors opens as a man (played by director Leos Carax) wanders from his bedroom through a secret entrance (opened by screwing his middle finger) into a theater, where he and we gaze out from the stage/screen at an impassive audience. It's a disorienting position that presages a film that is equally self-referential, confusing, amusing and amused with itself.

After that, we ride along in a stretch limo with "Oscar" (Denis Lavant), an actor portraying various characters throughout the day. The limo is his dressing room, supplying costumes and props. When Oscar exits the limo, the scene begins; he is variously a wild man, a grumpy dad, an assassin, an old woman and so on. The scenes likewise run the gamut from melodrama and satire to digitally rendered fantasy.

Described that way, Holy Motors sounds coherent, but instead it's an audacious romp through a funhouse of narratives, themes and visuals. By turns, it's frustrating and funny, tedious and thrilling, oblique and obvious. 

By riffing on what we expect of cinema — linear plotting, conflict between characters, a musical number — Holy Motors never takes off as a deliriously loopy experience. This grounding in the familiar makes much of the film palatable as a series of mini-films within a larger story about Oscar, but it also serves to dampen what might have been a purer, everything-be-damned wild ride for the senses.

Much about Holy Motors is open-ended: It could be a satire, a character(s) study, an homage to performance and cinema (plenty of nods here for the cineaste), a rumination on everyday role-playing, a poke in the eye from some arthouse elitist, or all of the above.

Two specific scenes (including the film's last) suggest that Carax is concerned about the current state of cinema, which through new technologies, has drifted away from its roots — actors and mechanical equipment, or the "holy motors" of the title. (Ironically, Carax shot on digital video.) Then again, some of this was expressed by talking cars, so I might have gotten it wrong.

By now, hopefully, you know if this is the sort of film you like. I'm a bit torn on approving it. While I appreciated much of its artistry and verve, I did find a good bit of it tedious and self-indulgent; I liked it more when it was over. Perhaps it's meant to stick with you, rather than be entertaining or explicable upon viewing. But its brio, as well as Lavant's performance, makes up for a lot. Holy Motors is packed with variety, so there's something for everyone, including an accordion interlude.

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