It happens occasionally that I screen an art-house film, usually foreign, and have no idea what I’ve just seen. Usually in those cases, I feel manipulated and condescended to. In extreme cases — like, say, anything recent by Jean-Luc Godard — I feel like one of those angry hominids in 2001: A Space Odyssey, tossing bones at the unfathomable black monolith.
Not so with Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. As random and indefinable as it is, there is a free-spirited WTF aspect to it, a sense that something utterly unexpected, whimsical or shocking, can assault your senses at any given moment.
Example: at one of its heaviest moments of metaphorical meaning-of-life drama, the protagonist M. Oscar takes a break to jam a rock riff on accordion. From the dark Parisian back alleys, more Frenchmen with squeezeboxes appear, rocking out the city of lights with a tune I immediately decided to acquire for my iPod. It’s a remarkable moment, not least for the fact that it inspired me to write the words “rocking” and “French” in the same sentence.
There’s another musical interlude (this one Lloyd Webber-esque), a “Honey, I’m home!” moment involving chimpanzees, a homeless lunatic biting off a young woman’s fingers, and talking cars.
As the movie begins, we meet M. Oscar (Denis Lavant), kissing his family goodbye and heading off in a limo with his assistant Celine (Edith Soob). It soon becomes clear that the aptly-named “Mr. Oscar” is an actor, whose day involves playing out scenes as a character in various people’s lives.
He’s a beggar, a madman (who kidnaps a supermodel, played by Eva Mendes), a murderer and a dying man. In one lyrical scene he and a woman, both in motion-capture suits, make love in an FX-laden pas de deux.
Who is M. Oscar? Who is his audience? (We meet a member of that audience at one point complaining that his heart doesn’t appear to be in it anymore). Is this about the ridiculousness of the acting profession? Is the entire world a stage? Who the heck knows? I just know Holy Motors tickled me, cosmic pretensions and all.