Holy Motors – review

A gorgeous furry teacup of a film, Leos Carax's first feature in 13 years is a gripping surrealist odyssey that makes most other films look very buttoned-up

The French film-maker Leos Carax, director of Les Amants du Pont Neuf and Pola X, has made his first feature in 13 years, and it is a bizarre surrealist odyssey whose magic ingredient is comedy. This is a gorgeous furry teacup of a film, preposterous and filled with secrets; it is itself one big secret. Holy Motors is simultaneously immersive and alienating. The audience is forever being encouraged to forget about narrative sense and slip into a warm bath of unreason, but persistently jolted back out of it with non-sequiturs, accordion interludes, gags and unexpected chimps.

There is something very mad about this film, consumed with a ferociously eccentric need to let no windmill go untilted-at. When so many film-makers are content with what Peter Greenaway identified as pre-cinematic products – films that look like staid adaptations of novels or plays, whether they are or not – Carax really wants to use the freedom and evolved fluidity of the cinema. When I first saw this, I wrote that it had an inspired touch of dishevelment and derangement. It makes most other films look very buttoned-up.

Carax's star is his longtime collaborator Denis Levant, playing Monsieur Oscar, an enigmatic businessman employed by a shadowy organisation run by a moustachioed boss (Michel Piccoli), who makes a brief and disgruntled appearance. Oscar is being ferried around Paris in the back of a white stretch limo; at the wheel is his trusted driver, Céline, played by Edith Scob. Levant's face is as inscrutable as Buster Keaton's, but its unreadability is all his own: it is a ruined-cherub face, or the face of an alien possessed of unearthly powers. Monsieur Oscar has a number of "appointments" to complete by the end of the day, whose specific needs he assesses by scanning various case folders. For each appointment, he gets into a new disguise: the back of the car is like a theatrical dressing room, and like Jim Phelps in TV's Mission: Impossible, he uses latex face masks.

But what on earth are these appointments? For one, he dresses as an old beggar woman, shambles around for a bit – apparently without talking or making contact with anyone – and then climbs back into the car. For another, he becomes a motion-capture acrobat, dressed in a skintight black catsuit with white balls, contorting around a hi-tech studio with a red-leather-clad woman in a daring and erotic routine that morphs into the very on-screen CGI animation they are creating. In another guise, he becomes "Monsieur Merde", the priapic, green-suited, flower-munching imp Carax and Levant created in a short piece for the 2008 portmanteau film Tokyo. Merde kidnaps an unsmiling fashion model played by Eva Mendes and holds her captive in a cave. He even has a poignant, even tragic encounter with Eva, a woman who appears to be his lost love – a stylish yet gentle singing performance from Kylie Minogue.

Carax gives us cinephile allusions to Jean Cocteau, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy and Georges Franju in the course of the film; with a chilling mask, Scob reprises her own famous persona from Franju's 1960 film Eyes Without a Face. But more potent influences are perhaps JG Ballard, Lewis Carroll, Fritz Lang or David Lynch, whose Eraserhead and Inland Empire hover over the weird introduction, in which the director himself awakens and wanders through a darkened cinema auditorium accompanied by the unsettling sound of seagulls. Perhaps Oscar's guises are an exhibition of grotesques, a satirical commentary on our yearning for logic and progress in our lives, a yearning for stability and identity, or the exact opposite, a yearning to escape the prison of identity. It could be punk Buddhism, a set of wacky reincarnations, or maybe the film is in fact a literary adaptation of two lines from TS Eliot's Prufrock: "There will be time/ To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet."

Yet the absurdity and dream anti-logic give an unexpected force to the serious and passionate moments, which are the more moving and disturbing because they come out of nowhere and are so overwhelmingly real. At one moment, Oscar is a dying, wealthy old man making a tragic farewell to his devoted great-niece Léa (Elise Lhomeau), whom he has made rich, but in so doing evidently caused her to attract a man who has broken her heart. In another gripping scene, Oscar becomes a grumpy dad, picking up his unhappy teenage daughter from a party. His treatment of her is one of the scariest things I have seen at the cinema all year.

Holy Motors could be a multiple-personality disorder of the spirit, a tragicomic shattering of the self, caused by some catastrophe that has happened just out of sight, just beyond the reach of memory. But it's quite possible it's just bravura, imagination, fun. This is the theory I favour. It's pure pleasure.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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