The banker pauses in his sweeping driveway in the dawn light, as his children wave goodbye from the windows of his modernist manse. As he passes his fleet of luxury cars and his security scans the area from the roof, you get the sense that this little stroll between his front door and the waiting white stretch limo may be all the breathing room he gets for the day—a small indulgence he blocks off for himself. Balding and jowly, he settles into the back seat, inserts his earpiece, and starts rolling calls.
When the limo stops again a few minutes later, he emerges as a bent old woman, what people used to call a beggar, stooped and brandishing a cup for stray francs on a busy Parisian bridge, ignored by passers-by as the limo lurks close at hand.
The banker is not a banker, of course, nor is he a beggar. He is an actor—his next “appointment” after the bridge is at a motion-capture studio where he runs through a series of kung fu moves and blocks out an erotic encounter with a limber dancer, their writhing transmuted via pixel into alien coitus. But for whom is he acting? That’s just one of the many questions Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (Indomina DVD and Blu-ray) never quite answers, but the sense of wonder and play and mystery and existential gravity and genuine emotion that the French writer/director creates in his first feature in 14 years nonetheless leaves you both baffled and wanting more.
The actor’s name is Oscar, and he, in turn, is played by French actor Denis Lavant, a past Carax collaborator and a highlight of a vital handful of films by other auteurs, including Claire Denis (Beau Travail) and Harmony Korine (Mr. Lonely). Between appointments, Oscar lounges in the back of the stretch, amid a makeup table, trunks full of costumes and props, and a file of dossiers on what he’s up to next. His driver, Céline (Edith Scob), is a regal aging blond, part simmering crush, part maternal solicitousness. Oscar seems in need of some of the latter. As the one long day in which the movie takes place extends, the elaborate costume changes, the long line of stops, and the sheer exertion of embodying these other lives clearly wears on him. Oh, and he is killed at least twice, and that takes a toll.
The beggar woman seems like a piece of performance art; the motion-capture sequence a straight job of work. But what about the section in which Oscar, made out to be a slightly grubby lower-middle-class schlub, picks up his daughter from a party and they squabble tearfully before he drops her off? There is no one watching but us. Or the sequence in which Oscar, remade as a track-suited thug, slinks into a warehouse to kill a man—also played by Oscar? A tearful deathbed scene between Oscar, remade as an old man with a shock of white hair, and the old man’s daughter (Elise Lhomeau) ends with a glimpse that Oscar is not totally alone in his work.
The fourth wall totally tumbles soon after as an accidental encounter with another colleague, played by Kylie Minogue (!), underlines how lonely Oscar’s life must be—in a musical number, no less. And speaking of musical numbers, what of the entr’acte sequence featuring Oscar (or Lavant?) leading a gang of accordionists through the galleries of an enormous church as they rock an R.L. Burnside tune? And then there’s the astonishing bit in which Oscar, garbed as a troll-like sewer dweller, disrupts a fashion shoot.
Carax has made a career of defying expectations, following up the outrageous romantic folly of The Lovers on the Bridge (starring Lavant) with Pola X, a gritty, claustrophobic tale of amorous obsession in which you can practically smell the dirty feet and unwashed sheets. Here he takes what may very well have started off as a hodgepodge of ideas (the sewer-dweller character appeared in his sequence of 2008 anthology film Tokyo!) and weaves them together into a tantalizingly cohesive whole, despite the constant puckish wrong-footing and tangents. Holy Motors opens with the director himself rising from bed—asleep or awake is impossible to know—and the film makes an immediate connection between cinema and dreams. But each of the “appointment” sequences—not to mention the existential weariness of the limo scenes—carries some form of real emotional power. Part of that comes from Carax’s artful construction, and from lingering just long enough in each section to give each their own heft. Part of it comes from Lavant, who embodies each persona with such skill (kung fu! deathbed regrets!) and utter commitment that you regularly forget that he is not who he is pretending to be, not to mention that, in fact, you have no idea who his character really is.
A bottomless puzzle box crammed with nuggets of intense cinematic treasure, Holy Motors is all the richer for being so improbable. And just when you think Carax, Lavant, and Scob can delight no more, the limos get their say. Seriously.