In any other movie year, the vertiginous Cloud Atlas might have been the cinematic head trip above all others — shuffling identities, scrambling stories, vaulting centuries in an eyeblink. But this is the year of Holy Motors. Its writer-director, Leos Carax, never abandons his generous spirit and sense of play; this riot of images and ideas is the movie to whip out of your back pocket the next time some twerpy professional handwringer moans that cinema is dead.
No synopsis could convey the movie's greatness, or its allergy to synopsis. But here goes: In a sleek white limousine driven by his faithful chauffeur Céline (Édith Scob, from Summer Hours and Georges Franju's enduring Eyes Without a Face), the protean Monsieur Oscar rides through Paris. He's played by the great Denis Lavant, the acrobatic actor best known in the U.S. for playing Charlie Chaplin in Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely (and for incarnating the insuppressible desires of Claire Denis' Beau Travail). On his rounds, this shape-shifter will undertake various appointments where he'll don makeup, costumes, even ideologies and interact with the real world. Assassinations, parenting, motion capture, panhandling, political kidnapping — these are literally all in a day's work for Monsieur Oscar.
You can interpret this genre-hopping existence as an actor's life in macrocosm, or you can view Holy Motors as a sci-fi depiction of the leaps in association and transference of identity that make entertainment work. Or you can just surrender to the film's seductive embrace — above all, this is a playground for lovers of movies, with a surprise around every cut. It does not condescend or pretend that everything will be OK with the art. But for cinephiles demoralized by years of notched decline, from CG lens flares to the slow strangulation of 35mm repertory cinema, the movie reassures that cinematic innovation is both timeless and alive.
For a talent who's faced as many setbacks as Carax, Holy Motors comes as something more than a triumph — more like a vindication. Carax's last feature, 1999's Pola X, an adaptation of Herman Melville's Pierre, ou Les Ambiguities, was infamous for its unsimulated sexual content, and for being the director's attempted comeback after the catastrophic financial loss of 1991's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. (That film's visual glories serve as an epitaph for the late cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, who got the gig shooting Gummo in Nashville for Korine based on its strength.)
It's been 13 years now since Pola X, and in that time Carax has made only a short segment in the omnibus film Tokyo! (It introduced Lavant's rampaging id-pimp M. Merde, who briefly hijacks this film — as well as guest star Eva Mendes — in the course of exploring such topics as mourning, the politics of women's wear, and boner shame.) Several projects that never came to fruition over those years inspired some of the scenarios here. So did the deaths of Pola X's two leads, Guillaume Depardieu and Yekaterina Golubeva — the latter Carax's longtime companion and the mother of his daughter Nastya. Also in that time, 35mm celluloid began its death spiral, and digital technologies stepped in to take its place.
"We didn't shoot this with a camera," Carax remarked frankly during the New York Film Festival last month while promoting Holy Motors. "We shot it with a computer called the 'Red.' " And now that every phone or traffic light or laptop is a camera — a development that figured in another NYFF find, Brian De Palma's Passion — the demarcation between movie world and real world can't be determined or differentiated by big camera rigs and organization. The technology is everywhere, and like Monsieur Oscar — who shares his name not only with his creator (Carax's nom de cinema is an anagram) but with a certain gold statuette — everyone is a star, whether they know it or not.
But from all this sadness and upheaval, Carax has produced a fireworks display of ecstatic kinesis. Remember the celebrated "Modern Love" sequence in 1986's Mauvais Sang, where Lavant cartwheeled through Paris to the David Bowie hit? The joyful Holy Motors has at least four scenes here as eye-popping. The Entr'acte, wherein Lavant leads a grungy bunch on an accordion-fueled marching shred, is as deliriously exciting as anything you'll see this year. It also demonstrates an understanding of the way that audiences take in and respond to information. It provides just enough chance to catch one's breath before diving deeper into the subconscious, where fears of death, isolation, obsolescence and abandonment lie. If all you know Kylie Minogue for is 25 years of dance-pop hits, you have no idea how much impact she delivers here, playing essentially the ghost of Juliette Binoche's character from Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.
In a way, Holy Motors is cinematic psychedelia. Your enjoyment is determined by how far you allow yourself to be swept away by it, while Carax's fevered imagination keeps you aware how far you've traveled. Maybe this sounds off-putting or esoteric, but Holy Motors is neither. It's the kind of fun that hooks people for life on a movie theater's communally charged darkness. The movie even incorporates early film footage of human movement — an illustration of how far the art form has come, to be sure. But it's also a reminder that what we watch in our darkened cathedrals hasn't changed all that much.