Starring Denis Lavant, Kylie Minogue. Written and directed by Leos Carax. 14A. 111 min. Opens Nov. 16 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Outrageous, ingenious, and baffling by turns, Holy Motors changes form with as much frequency as its leading man—and that’s no mean feat. A puckish, rubber-faced actor who has starred in all but one of the four previous features by French maverick Leos Carax, Denis Lavant plays Oscar, a mysterious man who assumes a bewildering variety of guises in order to play various roles in the “appointments” that comprise his working day.
It may be easiest to describe Oscar as a performer in an assortment of carefully staged scenarios whose true purpose is hard to discern. At one point, he’s a straitlaced banker making a call in the back of the limousine that ferries Oscar between Paris locations. A few minutes later, he’s morphed into a wizened bag lady begging for change on the street.
But his most outlandish alter ego is the fittingly named Mr. Merde. A red-headed, troll-like figure who is continually stuffing his mouth with cigarettes, flowers, and the occasional wad of cash, he emerges from his lair in Paris’s sewers to terrorize tourists in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where he also disrupts a fashion shoot before absconding with a glassy-eyed model played by Eva Mendes.
Such a flagrant disregard for cinema’s rulebook will not sit well with some. But those who are up for the challenge will discover a method to Holy Motors’ madness. They may even be moved by this gleefully askew yet ultimately profound meditation on the changing nature of performance and identity in a world that’s inundated with cameras and screens.
At the heart of it all is a conundrum best articulated in words sung by Kylie Minogue during one of Holy Motors’ two exquisite musical numbers: “Who were we when we were who we were?” In this respect, Holy Motors has a kinship with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, another film that did its damnedest to destabilize conventions about characters and narrative in order to uncover deeper matters. But above all else, Carax is out to demonstrate cinema’s wildest possibilities. Thanks to Lavant’s astonishing elasticity, this mission is a roaring and utterly singular success.