“Holy Motors” is a post-apocalyptic movie, if your idea of the apocalypse was the demise of 35mm film and the rise of YouTube culture.
Leos Carax’s confounding and audacious film, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, is an obituary for movies wrapped in a love letter. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will be screening the film at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, as part of its Spotlight Cinema series — in 35mm, not digital, which would likely make Carax very happy.
The film opens with a surreal image. A darkened movie theater appears crowded, and it’s only after a minute that we realize that the people in the seats are really lifelike mannequins. A naked baby toddles unaware down the aisle, as an old man watches from the balcony.
Then we meet Mr. Oscar (Carax favorite Denis Lavant), who appears to be a wealthy tycoon living in a palatial estate. He’s picked up in a white limousine and driven into Paris, where he emerges — dressed as an old homeless woman, who berates passers-by.
Mr. Oscar, it turns out, is an actor. That white limousine is a mobile dressing room that takes him from one “appointment” to another around Paris, where he acts out scenes on the street, sometimes for the benefit of a few bewildered people, sometimes for the benefit of only one other person. Apparently, movies are a thing of the past, as cameras shrunk so small that they disappeared from life, and acting had to enter the bloodstream of everyday life to survive.
In one scene, Oscar emerges from the limo as a contract killer who must murder his own double. In another, he’s a middle-aged father who holds a tense, disappointed conversation with his daughter. And in the most memorable, he’s the green-suited comic monstrosity Monsieur Verde, who eats everything in sight (flowers, fingers) and kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and takes her to his subterranean lair.
In essence, Carax dares to add one more layer of artifice for the audience. Not only are we aware we’re watching a movie, but we’re aware the character on screen is an actor, playing a series of scenes. And yet, despite this post-modern distancing, the scenes manage to work their magic, revolting us, amusing us, moving us.
In one showstopping scene, for example, Oscar and a woman (Kylie Minogue) play lost lovers, reunited in an abandoned Paris department store — another business, like the movies, on the ropes in the digital age. The musical is perhaps the ultimate artificial genre in movies, since people don’t normally sing to each other with full orchestras backing them up. But I’ll be damned if the scene doesn’t transport us anyway.
In the end, there’s something cramped and narrow about the cinephile themes of “Holy Motors” that doesn’t quite match up with its ambitious execution. In the end, is it really just about movies? But for film fans, it’s a head trip that’s not to be missed.