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HOLY MOTORS

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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.

THE INTOUCHABLES (INTOUCHABLES)

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This sentimental odd couple comedy-drama has been an enormous hit in France, which only proves that the supposedly sophisticated French are as prone to swallow manipulative treacle as Americans are. “The Intouchables,” to use the nonsensical “English” title the American distributor has chosen, has been seen by some commentators as racist. But though a case could be made for that proposition—including the fact that the black man here was actually an Arab in the “true” story on which the screenplay is based—its greatest insensitivity has to do with class and culture rather than skin color.

The duo in question are Philippe (Francois Cluzet, who bears a striking resemblance to Dustin Hoffman), a wealthy man paralyzed from the neck down due to a paragliding accident, and Driss (Omar Sy), a rough-hewn French-Senegalese ex-con he impetuously hires as his live-in caregiver, appreciating that during his interview Driss doesn’t come across as the typically simpering, pitying applicant. Inevitably the two men become friends, helping one another—Philippe assists Driss in dealing with his tangled family problems, and Driss arranges for the insecure Philippe actually to connect with his female pen-pal—while going through a series of mini-adventures (they paraglide together, and Driss takes Philippe on joy-rides on motorized chairs and in a speeding sports car).

The last episode recalls a similarly calculated American movie, 1992’s “Scent of a Woman,” except in that case it was the timid hireling played by Chris O’Donnell who needed to be loosened up by his boss Al Pacino, whose blindness didn’t stop his bellowing and carousing. Here it’s Driss who’s tasked with helping Philippe break out of his privileged but sterile cocoon, and it’s the portrayal of this virile yet sensitive fellow that puts the picture securely into the tradition of The Noble Savage. He’s magnetic but slightly fearsome as well as charmingly manipulative, and instantly shatters cultural pretense and stifling social norms. So it’s perfectly fine when he, for instance, guffaws loudly at his first experience of opera, and later shows everybody how boring a chamber orchestra concert in honor of Philippe’s birthday was by cranking up his favorite—Earth, Wind and Fire, of all things—on the speakers and leading everyone in an uninhibited dance. (He also shows the absurdity of modern art by producing a canvas of splattered paint that sells for a large sum.)

The message in all this is the hoary old notion that uptight people have to be snapped out of their slavery to convention by intervention from a person who lives according to his natural impulses rather than society’s rules. It’s a very French idea that one can trace back to the jargon of the more simplistic Enlightenment thinkers and that helped fuel the 1789 revolution, and one that the French have really never abandoned. So Driss is black, yes, but more importantly he’s the person uncorrupted by what passes for culture who can liberate benighted souls from their mindless subservience to societal norms. Of course the script undermines the whole premise for a laugh at the end, when Driss, applying for a new job, exhibits some distinctly upper-class knowledge.

American movies also pander to the notion that people from what used to be called the wrong side of the tracks are freer and more clever than their social “betters,” but even a cookie-cutter comedy like “Tower Heist” subverts the formula. “The Intouchables” doesn’t. Driss has his problems at home, and even gets a bit of a comeuppance when a woman he’d been trying to lure into bed turns out to have other sexual interests. But for the most part he’s a rough-edged paragon who can flim-flam cops with the best of them, teach drivers who park illegally to have better manners, give the rich guy lessons on parenting, handle a teen infatuation gone bad with strong-arm tactics, and solve a problem involving a supposedly dangerous drug dealer just by talking to the guy. It’s all a modern fantasy that this picture prefers simply to confirm.

And it doesn’t help that Sy plays him so exuberantly, with demonstrations of a huge smile and pearly teeth alternating with scenes in which he smolders with virility. He’s a charismatic actor, but one lending his pizzazz to a hopeless stereotype. Cluzet is necessarily more restrained, but his performance is a catalogue of suppressed mugging as he responds—supposedly involuntarily—to Driss’s outrageous statements and actions. The rest of the cast just obediently fall into line with the filmmakers’ programmatic scenario; this is really a two-man show, and the entire production—including the technical crew—appears to have been directed to showcase them.

As the popular French reaction to “The Intouchables” proves, it’s certainly possible to enjoy the movie’s canny crowd-pleasing (or pandering) calculation; but even before it’s over, you’ll know you’ve been had.