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There are some movies that you can get a pretty clear read on the first time you see them, even if other dimensions reveal themselves later. Then there are movies like Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" that are so strange, so willfully enigmatic that they pretty much demand multiple viewings.
Carax burst onto the world cinematic scene at a mere 24 years old with his 1984 feature debut, "Boy Meets Girl." He went on to make a series of pungent, occasionally cloyingly French, frequently brilliant movies during the '80s and '90s like "Mauvais Sang" (1986), "The Lovers on the Bridge" (1991), and the controversial "Pola X" (1999). Carax hasn't really made much since the turn of the millennium except the standout segment of the omnibus flick "Tokyo!" I'm not really sure what happened to him in the intervening time, but he seems to have disentangled himself from whatever had been creatively holding him back in the past. "Holy Motors" feels like the exhilarating yawp of an auteur unchained.
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The film centers on Monsieur Oscar (played by the spectacular Denis Lavant), who is ferried from one appointment to another in a garish white limo. Within the cabin, he skims a dossier while applying stage makeup. When he emerges from the limo, he comes out as a wizened crone who panhandles for money. For his next appointment, we see him decked out in a bodysuit covered with small white balls as he dry humps a very flexible blonde before a motion-capture camera. Next he dresses up as a feral leprechaun (the same character as in "Tokyo!") who devours graveside bouquets and shouts gibberish. When he sees Eva Mendes posing for a fashion spread, he spirits the remarkably passive supermodel away to his underground lair and dresses her in a burka. Later he cruelly scolds his supposed teenaged daughter over a white lie, murders his doppelgänger in a warehouse, and walks around an abandoned department store as his former lover -- Kylie Minogue, of all people -- sings a musical number before jumping to her death. Don't bother asking who is ordering these appointments, why he's doing them, or generally what the hell is going on. This isn't one of those movies.
"Holy Motors" is, however, a film larded with metaphors and film references that may or may not unfold on a second or third viewing. I'll get back to you on that. Clearly Oscar's weird gig has analogues to the world of acting and by extension the varied identities that we all play in life. The elusive internal logic of the film comes straight out of Buñuel's later movies like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "The Phantom of Liberty." Other than that, I'm still working through it.
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The heart of "Holy Motors" comes right in the middle: a showstopping interlude that shows Lavant and about eight other people marching through a church playing accordions. Shot in what looks like a single take, the scene may or may not have a thematic/metaphorical connection to the rest of the film, but who cares? It is one of the most charming, thrilling things I've seen in movies this year.
"Holy Motors" might be maddenly mysterious, but Carax's enthusiasm makes the flick a blast.