There’s this quiet throb underneath maturation and aging, an insistent reminder that all success is inherently unsatisfying. It’s bad enough for those who don’t rise to meet their ambitions, but for those who do ascend to the marquee the psychic backlash seems to be altogether more of a punishment. This mid-career fatigue lingers in every interlude of Léos Carax’s mesmerizing Holy Motors. The film itself, however, is such a victory for imaginative storytelling that its protagonist’s disappointment becomes merely the thread that holds its half-dozen fantastic chapters together.
The film’s premise essentially borrows Shakespeare’s aside about the world being a stage and each man playing many parts and blows up an absurd interpretation of it. Denis Lavant (maybe even more brilliant here than he is in Carax’s previous masterpiece Lovers on the Bridge) plays an actor, in a sense. He begins his day as a wealthy businessman leaving his home, met by a limo driver/personal secretary named Céline (Édith Scob). Once in the limo, Lavant carefully transforms himself into a bitter, broken old urchin, back hunched almost into an acute angle; Céline drops him off and we see him, as a homeless woman, beg for change on the Pont-Neuf. Carax is oblique in these transitions, at least at first, exploring how far he can take each character from the previous, his own curiosity enflamed. Lavant’s character, Mr. Oscar, has six roles in a single day; the next involves dressing up in a motion capture suit and playing a reptilian CGI warrior. Already the distance between bitter, old vagrant and lithe, acrobatic fighter is so great that the nonchalant transformation is itself a testament to how accustomed we can become to even the oddest quotidian.
As the day wears on, Oscar goes on to play a feral leprechaun-looking wretch (Mr. Merde, from an earlier Carax vignette in Tokyo!) who stalks sewers and cemeteries before eventually capturing his opposite, Kay M. (Eva Mendes), a supermodel he drags back into the netherworld. This is Carax at his most primal and absurd, and it’s at once the film’s most hilarious and queasiest moment. Lavant goes on to play a dying aristocrat, a hectored teen’s father, a blunt assassin — the range is bewildering but ultimately of a piece. Carax communicates in genre: the further he moves away from reality, the closer Lavant’s character becomes with his own anguish. Whenever he returns to the limo and to remove his makeup or dig through his menagerie of props and costumes, we see Lavant become more disheveled. He begins to smoke and drink on the job. Céline’s role, to make sure Oscar maintains his schedule, also becomes one of sadness, watching her colleague grow more sick and tired with each new role.
Carax has said Holy Motors is not a movie about movies. He’s right: it’s probably not as simple as that. The film does open with Carax as a man discovering a pathway from his bedroom to the mezzanine of a movie house, but maybe it’s a distinction between vessel and cargo. Lavant does play an actor (whose name, Oscar, is a little loaded, movie-wise) passing from genre to genre, but his inherent character is one of listlessness and loss, of ennui and dissatisfaction. At one point, he even breaks character and asks another actor’s real name. Later, he meets an old flame, herself an actress, both of them on their way to a role (their limos collide). This meeting of old lovers occurs at the Samaritaine, an iconic, dilapidated Paris department store that was a central image in Lovers on the Bridge. Carax has also said “I’m not only my films, but I’m pretty much my films,” which rings like an acknowledgement that film (and its conventions and vagaries) is his best — even sole — means of communication — his films even try to communicate with one another. That he frames the film with himself (as Le Dormeur) stumbling upon a packed screening speaks to this as well.
His intent aside, Carax has made something phenomenal with Holy Motors: an ode to aging, borne from the world’s increasing overstimulation and compartmentalization, a meditation on contemporary fatigue that’s more alive than anything else released this year. The film is elegantly choreographed, with waves of vibrant storytelling giving way to pools of exhaustion at perfect intervals. There’s even an excellent and random intermission, as Oscar and a company of musicians march through a church recreating a cacophonous R.L. Burnside tune on accordions. Carax often reaches for visual punchlines, sitcom-like gestures that might backfire if their juxtaposition with Oscar’s disdain wasn’t so shattering. Carax, as viewer and as creator, offers with Holy Motors an immaculate thesis on both storytelling’s powers and failures, an essay on art’s inherent melancholy and its perpetual triumphs.