There’s a moment in Holy Motors when Monsieur Merde, a dirty leprechaun-looking man in a tattered green suit with scraggly red hair, approaches the fringes of a high-fashion photo shoot. The photographer is grunting, “Beauty, beauty!” with perverse glee at his model, until he sees the good Monsieur. He pauses and then redirects his camera, and excitedly proclaims, “Weird, weird! He’s so weird!”
That about sums up my feelings towards Holy Motors, by French director Leos Carax. It is a bizarre and bewildering journey through the twisted imagination of its director/screenwriter. And it’s fun as hell, one of the most mesmerizing and unusual films I’ve ever seen.
In the opening scene, a blind man stumbles out of bed over to a wall. He feels around for a secret keyhole, which he unlocks with his middle finger, which happens to be a key. The sound of gulls by the ocean comes in from nowhere. Then he’s in a theater.
And that’s just the first five minutes of the film. It gets no less weird.
Holy Motors tells the story of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), an actor of sorts who is driven via white limousine to various “appointments,” applying costume makeup for each one. We first glimpse Oscar as he leaves his mansion for his limousine and takes a phone call to discuss the urgent need for more bodyguards. Nothing is suspect until he uncovers a vanity in the back of the limousine and starts brushing the long gray hair of a wig. When we next see him emerge, he is a decrepit beggar woman, pitifully begging for alms on the street.
We follow Oscar throughout his day as he attends to appointment after appointment. At one, he wears a motion-capture suit and graphically dryhumps a leather-clad contortionist. Then, he picks up a young girl from a party and scolds her when he catches her in a lie. Later, he leads an accordion-only marching band through a church.
Turns out, Oscar works for a shadowy corporation only referred to as “The Agency.” His assignments are commissioned scenes being secretly filmed, and Oscar is growing weary of his job.
On one assignment, he enters a hotel and lies on a bed. A woman enters and they proceed to have a teary-eyed, heart-wrenching goodbye. Taken by itself, it would do a number on the heartstrings. In context, it’s absurd and hilarious, which serves as a testament to how thoroughly Carax has mind-fucked you throughout the film. Afterwards, with the woman’s head slumped on his torso, Oscar politely excuses himself and leaves.
When you think the movie can’t possibly get more absurd, it manages to one-up itself, and does so for nearly two hours. Holy Motors might be a great way to introduce someone to art films. It may be outlandish, indecipherable and ridiculous to a fault, but there’s one thing it’s certainly not: boring.
Holy Motors screens at the International Film Series on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Four out of four stars