Quoting Shakespeare is cheap and easy, but what better way to sum up “Holy Motors” than those oft repeated words from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.” In this case the man is Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), who rides around town in a white limousine driven by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob). Inside the limo, Mr. Oscar uses stage makeup and a wide ranging wardrobe to transform himself into various characters that he then “plays” in real life.
Each of these roles that Mr. Oscar takes on leads to a short vignette or skit that can be funny, poignant, horrific, or all of the above. Oscar has stints as, among other things, a bag lady, a motion capture actor performing simulated sex, and a father disappointed in his daughter. In my favorite segment he’s a creepy looking old guy with long nails and one dead eye who wanders through a cemetery while Akira Ifikube’s Godzilla monster battle music plays. The creepy old guy eventually stumbles upon a fashion shoot where Eva Mendes is the model. When the director has his assistant ask Oscar to be part of the shoot all hell breaks loose.
Writer/director Leos Carax’ love of the fantastique (the fancy French term for horror, science fiction, and fantasy films and literature) is apparent not just in his choice of music, but in the casting of Edith Scob. Ms. Scob starred in the French horror classic “Eyes Without a Face”, and she has a scene in “Holy Motors” where she directly references her role in that film. But while there are undoubtedly elements of genre films throughout “Holy Motors”, it’s larger influence would seem to be the surrealistic comedies of Luis Bunuel’s later period like “The Phantom of Liberty” and “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, or perhaps even the similarly free flowing absurdist humor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One can almost imagine John Cleese popping in between Oscar’s gigs to say, “And now for something completely different.”
Unlike the dense (some might say impenetrable) surrealism and symbolism of filmmakers like David Lynch or Guy Maddin, Carax is more likely to amuse than confuse. This is still an exceedingly strange film with little use for conventional storytelling, but at the same time you don’t need to have a college level understanding of Freudian psychology to get the ideas being conveyed here.
Even if you can’t quite appreciate the film itself, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Denis Lavant’s performance. Like a modern day Lon Chaney, he completely disappears into each of his roles. Even though we’re always aware that he is an actor playing an actor playing a scene (within a scene), the artifice of it all disappears thanks to Lavant’s completely believable performance(s). It should go without saying that every movie is “not for everyone”, but with weird little masterpieces like this that goes double.
“Holy Motors” opens in Cleveland on Friday November 30th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.