When audiences walk out of Holy Motors, they may echo the words of a photographer who ecstatically snaps pictures of a strange goblin-like creature in one of the film's many bizarre sequences – "So weird...so weird." Holy Motors is weird, there's no doubt about that. Before making this film, Leos Carax hadn't directed a feature in 13 years, and at times it feels like he has simply poured every idea, fantasy, dream and nightmare he had in that period into a single extraordinary picture. One of those ideas will be familiar to anyone who saw Carax's contribution to the portmanteau film Tokyo! in 2008, as Holy Motors reprises the sewer-dwelling, flower-eating, armpit-licking Monsieur Merde from that anarchic short. This time, however, Monsieur Merde is just one of many elaborate characters performed by Denis Lavant.
Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, who is a businessman of apparently some importance, and we first see him settling into a limousine and looking at the heavy schedule of appointments he has ahead of him. When he emerges, however, he is no longer dressed in a suit. Instead, he is in the guise of an old beggar woman; stooped over, shabbily dressed, with one arm extended as she beseeches pedestrians for some spare change. In Holy Motors, Lavant adopts a series of disguises and immerses himself into these extremely varied roles. The inside of the limousine is decked out to resemble an actor's dressing room, but for what purpose? For what audience is Monsieur Oscar going to this effort? We never really find out, and I'm not sure if that matters anyway.
Perhaps Holy Motors is Carax's meditation on the nature of performance, or a metaphor for the way we all wear masks and present ourselves differently in different situations in our own lives. It's hard to get a fix on Holy Motors because it keeps wriggling away and reinventing itself every few minutes. Just when we have recovered from the shock of seeing Monsieur Merde kidnap a fashion model (a very game Eva Mendes), the film presents us with a father-daughter scene that is very touching in the natural honesty of its emotions. A strange motion-capture scene segues into an even stranger sexually charged CGI sequence, while a segment in which Monsieur Oscar attempts to assassinate his doppelganger develops towards an amusing and very clever punchline. There's even a musical interlude, which may be my single favourite moment in this year of cinema.
Inevitably, the film is episodic and some of these vignettes work better than others (the deathbed scene is a weak link), but such missteps are rare. Towards the end of the film, Carax deals another surprise, with Kylie Minogue turning in a surprisingly effective and affecting cameo as another of these mysterious performers, who shares some unspoken link with Monsieur Oscar. In fact, all of the actors cast in the film manage to make a memorable impact despite the mysterious nature of their characters: Michel Piccoli pops up in the limo to offer words of advice to the jaded actor; Edith Sciob is the driver tasked with transporting Monsieur Oscar around town all day (she also sparks one of the film's more on-the-nose cinematic references); and the director himself kicks things off by appearing in the opening scene. He plays a man who wakes in a strange room and finds a portal in the wall that leads to a darkened cinema, where an audience is transfixed by the bright screen. The link between cinema and dreams made explicit right at the start of his remarkable film.
But Holy Motors is Denis Lavant's film, and he seizes his multiple roles with breathtaking skill and conviction. Not since Beau Travail in 1999 has the actor been granted a role that takes advantage of his unique physicality in such a thrilling manner. Carax has said that if Lavant turned down this role he would have "offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin. Or to Peter Lorre or Michel Simon." Like their great iconic roles, it's easy to see Lavant's staggering multiple performances here going down as one for the ages. Like the film around him, the actor is exhilaratingly fearless, boundlessly imaginative and, of course, "So weird...so weird."