Holy Motors takes audiences for a wild ride

French auteur Leos Carax is the surreal deal

Mark Twain’s famous words of advice, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes,” should be adopted by perplexed viewers of Holy Motors. The phantasmagoric French film constantly shifts gears, from family drama to monster movie, from gritty urban noir to autumnal musical. If you don’t like one episode, just wait. The follow-up will be completely different.

Writer/director Léos Carax constructs a fascinating puzzle box that follows dream logic rather than the usual rules of film. Mesmerizingly strange, Holy Motors uses cinema as a distorted mirror to offer an enigmatic yet wise perspective on life and human nature.

Elegant chauffeur Céline (Édith Scob) drives wealthy Oscar (Denis Lavant) through the streets of Paris for a day and a night. The back of Oscar’s limo is tricked-out like a theatrical dressing room, where Oscar changes his clothes and appearance en route to every appointment. His guises range from stooped beggar-woman to gruff hit man to the disappointed dad of a teenage wallflower.

In one of Holy Motors’ most memorable scenes, Oscar dons a green suit and Neanderthal makeup, including yellow, claw-like fingernails, and rampages through a Parisian cemetery while the driving score of the original Godzilla plays. He crashes a high-fashion photo shoot, where the photographer suggests pairing him with the arch model (Eva Mendes) as part of a “Beauty and the Beast” concept. Instead, Oscar runs amok and takes Mendes to a subterranean lair.

Oscar’s appointments vary from the quiet, character-based encounters of European cinema to genre exercises, or at least French ideas of Hollywood formulae. At one point, Oscar steps out of the limo in the black, ball-studded tights of a motion-capture animation performer. He eventually finds a soundstage, does Darth Maul-style fighting moves, and then has a carnal encounter with a female contortionist in similar garb, like an X-rated Cirque du Soleil act.

Carax crafts scenes of such engrossing tension, and his casual surrealism makes for such strong interlocking metaphors, that the film requires no realistic explanation. Holy Motors hints that Oscar is some kind of celebrity film star, however. His name is synonymous with the Academy Award, and at one point he muses about how much he misses movie cameras. It could be that his every scene is covertly being recorded for some kind of audience, but Carax allows Holy Motors’ viewers to connect their own dots.

Despite playing a diversity of ages and genders, Lavant consistently conveys a world-weariness, as if all the role-playing is finally catching up with him. An effectively bittersweet Kylie Minogue plays a kindred spirit who has a similarly protean career, and they have a touching, nostalgia-driven encounter in a derelict building. When Minogue breaks into a lush, sweeping song, it feels completely natural.

A couple of similarly heady films earlier this year paved the way for Holy Motors. Like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Carax uses a day-long limo ride as a life metaphor, and like Cloud Atlas, an actor’s multiple roles and outré makeup choices can represent the evolution of a soul. Holy Motors will appeal to fans of such provocative filmmakers as Cronenberg and David Lynch, while demonstrating more melancholy humanism than either. With Carax behind the wheel, Holy Motors takes you off the map to places you’ve never dreamed of.