Anything goes in “Holy Motors,” which is both the strength and the weakness of Leos Carax’s film. On the one hand, the picture’s sheer variety keeps one intrigued, if often morbidly so. On the other, the unpleasantness of many of the component episodes and the incoherence of the whole makes it a chore to sit through. It’s easy to imagine viewers finding it difficult to turn away from the screen, but difficult to imagine them enjoying the experience much.
What’s the movie about? Well, on the surface it shows a fellow named Oliver (Denis Lavant) who’s driven around in a white stretch limo through the night, being given “assignments” that oblige him to dress up in various guises and play different characters, mostly in street-theatre scenes but sometimes apparently in mock movies. It would be tedious to go through all the dozen or so episodes, but a few can be given as examples. One involves his putting on a “motion-capture” suit and engaging in, first, an action scene with a machine gun, and then a steamy sexual encounter with a female figure similarly costumed, though in a red suit. Another has him becoming a grotesque sewer-dweller who, after biting off the fingers of a photographer’s assistant, kidnaps the gorgeous model appearing in the shoot, taking her to his lair, where he dresses her in a burka and then strips to lie on her lap (among other things). Then there’s a scene in which he puts on a mask, brandishes guns on the street and is apparently shot to death. One segment links him with a woman with whom he does a musical number, and in the middle of the picture room is made for an interlude in which he takes up accordion and does a tune with a backup band. At the close a garage-full of identical limos bicker about their prospective obsolescence.
None of this makes literal sense, of course, but it’s not supposed to. The movie is structured as a sort of movie-dream, which “explains” the initial sequence, in which a man in pajamas (Carax himsef) unlocks a hidden door in his bedroom and enters a nightmarish theatre in which a mannequin-like audience watches the screen (showing King Vidor’s “The Crowd,” which of course is a portrait of regimentation) while a dog wanders through the aisles. The various sequences that follow refer repeatedly to the fear of death. And there’s a strain that suggests the dissociative impact of the modern cyberworld on human existence. The two themes are integrated in the sewer-dweller sequence, when the character makes his way through a cemetery in which all the tombstones carry the message “Visit My Website.” You can also read the film as an anthology of movie-genre spoofs, from film noir to musicals to contemporary special-effects extravaganzas, and as a commentary on modern man’s disconnectedness, an absence of real human contact in a web-centered world.
But one can’t impose too much structure or meaning on “Holy Motors”—which is, incidentally, the name of the garage where the limos congregate at the end of their shift. It’s basically a sort of Dada-esque cinematic exercise that reflect the writer-director’s fragmentary dreams and nightmares in their non-linear form. It has some visual impact, courtesy of the cinematography of Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape, and one has to admire Lavant’s commitment to his myriad “roles.” There are also isolated in-jokes that will bring smiles to movie buffs’ faces, like the use of the score, unless my ears are playing tricks, of the 1956 “Godzilla” in the sewer-dweller sequence.
Over the long haul, however, the picture’s innovation pales and it becomes increasingly to feel banal and random. Surrealism has its place, and Canax certainly indulges his taste for it. But by the time those gabbing cars turn up, you’ll probably be thinking that it’s an exercise in overindulgence.