Elusive, spectacular and fun as hell. Holy Motors, the latest from French auteur Léos Carax, is cinematic goofballs – a ride that nods at classic cinema while simultaneously reflecting on the modern state of man’s now incessantly documented existence.

The film begins with its maker: Carax awakens in a room at night. With a cigarette and sunglasses, he walks to a wall, papered in pale trees. One of his fingers is a metallic key, which he inserts into the wall to open a door. Inside is a movie theater filled with ashen figures, a terra cotta army of watchers. On the screen, black-and-white images flicker featuring a man, nude, performing feats of strength – images that reoccur throughout Holy Motors, a nod to movie pioneer Étienne-Jules Marey. The mood is somewhat stifling, sedated. The only life in the theater lurks in the aisle in the form of a huge, black dog. It’s a symbol, perhaps, of vigorous life, of energy about to be unleashed.

The viewer soon finds himself forgetting the filmmaker and focusing on another man: Denis Lavant, who plays Oscar. At first glance, Oscar appears to be a wealthy businessman, entering a long, white limousine driven by Céline (Edith Scob). When Oscar first leaves the limousine, however, he emerges an old hag, panhandling on a Paris sidewalk for coins, his back bent like a snow-laden tree. This old lady act, it appears, is the first of Oscar’s nine “appointments” in what proves to be a long day, filled with bloodstains and transformations, such as from rich to poor, old to young, male to female, mad to sane.

Lavant’s performance in these shape-shifting episodes is superb, nearly unbelievable. He carries the movie, with ease. Whatever he does — whether it’s knifing a guy in the neck, lecturing a teenage girl on party etiquette or leading a procession of accordion players through a cathedral — works with the flow of Carax’s poetics. Holy Motors is dizzying, but never daunting. You laugh just trying to wrap your head around it, which, for me, is reminiscent of watching Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films. It’s the cinema of joy.

These appointments (to get back to the plot, if you can call it that) all start the same way. While in the limo, the mysterious Oscar glances at a dossier for his upcoming “role,” dons the appropriate costume, does his makeup and — voila — reinvents himself. In one of the more audacious appointments, Oscar becomes a mad leprechaun, a ginger Gollum-like creature who terrorizes a cemetery, feasting on bouquets before stumbling upon a photo shoot. Eva Mendes, the supermodel, is the subject of attention, beauty before our leprechaun lets loose an onslaught of weird, biting a girl’s fingers off, licking Mendes’ armpit and stealing her away to his lair. For what? A nap.

Somewhere between lunch (sushi) and the final episode, a shady executive (Michel Piccoli) appears in the limo and talks to Oscar about his job, performing: why he does it.

“For the beauty of the act,” Oscar says.

“But beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the executive replies.

“And what if there is no beholder?”

The question rings like to the old “if a tree falls” problem, but it’s less enigmatic. The viewer is tempted to offer an answer. But when he does, he can’t help but realize how much our world just loves beholding. Whether it’s for pleasure or defense, cameras are always rolling. Hell, even social media makes the question tricky. Kids in the Internet age grew up learning MySpace angles, how to take photos in the bathroom mirror, how to have a constant presence flickering, murmuring somewhere. Perhaps we’re just narcissists, or shallow beings incapable of intimacy. But perhaps through such media we might realize our various selves, and say, as the most American of poets once did: “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Philosophizing aside: Holy Motors, from the moment Carax turns the key, carries you on a creative jetstream that is nothing but a tour de force.

Holy Motors is playing at the Edina Cinema.


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