If a couple of this year’s DVD releases are any indication, whole worlds of weirdness are unfolding behind the tinted glass of white stretch limos.
First Robert Pattinson’s dissatisfied financier made his slow, vexing progress through Manhattan in Cosmopolis. Now the French actor Denis Lavant inhabits 11 roles in Léos Carax’s thrillingly outré Holy Motors.
In comparison with the earlier film, the Parisian odyssey is far less tethered to the social climate or to much of anything in the way of narrative expectations. It begins with the filmmaker himself waking into a dream and looking out upon a dreaming audience from the empty loge of a movie theater. This tribute to the power of cinema is the most unequivocal scene in the movie and also as eerie (and eerily soundscaped) as anything David Lynch might conjure.
From there the episodic journey belongs to the sinewy shape-shifter Lavant as Monsieur Oscar, a seemingly high-powered businessman who is also — or mainly — an actor. With the unutterably elegant Céline (Edith Scob) at the wheel of the limo, he embarks on a day’s worth of "appointments" that might collectively be a dream, an insomniac’s restless wanderings or something else entirely.
For each of his assignments, Oscar dons an elaborate disguise in his mobile dressing room. His first persona, an elderly female beggar who stands by the Seine crooked-backed and ignored, suggests an extreme exercise in empathy. That characterizes much of the day’s experiment, but finally the connective tissue is nothing more or less than the trying on of roles.
With his elastic physicality and fearlessness, Lavant is "what if" incarnate, digging beneath identities that are all too easily fixed. He’s assassin and victim, dying old man and nostalgic lover, concerned father and sewer-dwelling gnome.
In one of the most spectacular sequences, that flower-chomping gnome surfaces in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where he violently crashes a fashion shoot and spirits away the impassive model (Eva Mendes). In full sexual readiness, he’s comforted by a lullaby.
While peeling away one disguise and applying the next, Oscar laments the world’s shift from heavy machines to invisible technology. An anxious nostalgia runs through his day, from the old-fashioned backstage ambience of his limousine dressing room to the nod to Scob’s role in the horror classic Eyes Without a Face and, not least, Kylie Minogue’s soulful showstopper amid the broken mannequins of a shuttered department store.
In Holy Motors Carax insists on our other selves. His daylong ride is a wary celebration, a joyful dirge that’s served up in concentrated form by a roving band of accordion players. It’s all in a day’s work.