Movie review: 'Holy Motors' a film fan's delight

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Talk about an identity crisis. The cinematic store could be called ID's R Us in "Holy Motors," a mindblowing explosion of imagination and virtuosic technique from French auteur Leos Carax.

You never know where Mr. Carax will take you -- or exactly why -- but this is a dream of a movie, literally: It opens with its hero waking up and stepping surreally through a wall of his bedroom into a movie theater. That's just the first of many stops during a day in the life of Oscar (Denis Lavant).

'Holy Motor'

3.5 stars = Very Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendez, Michel Piccoli.
  • Rating: R in nature for some nudity, sexual and violent images.

Oscar is a brilliant performer always on the move, chauffeured by his faithful driver Celine (Edith Scob) in a stretch limo that also serves as his dressing room and prop factory. Today she'll be taking him to and from nine assignments during which he will be -- play or actually become? -- an assassin, a bag-lady beggar, a fashion photographer, a monster, a dutiful father and an accordionist, among other bizarre things.

That smorgasbord of roles comes with a smorgasbord of styles to match: Each episode mimics the tone and trappings of a different film genre, from "action" thriller and horror flick to melodrama and musical. Not neglecting state-of-the-art hi-tech digital F/X fantasy. Or satirical versions thereof.

It's impossible to properly describe the quality and quantity of these episodic sequences in the space at hand, but I'll make a stab at one of them (my favorite, and the most terrific), in which Oscar turns into a crazy sort of Harpo Marx Neanderthal man, who descends into the Parisian sewers and emerges into a cemetery, grabbing and eating flowers from the headstones -- including one engraved with the words "Visit My Website:" -- before stumbling upon a magazine photo shoot, where he kidnaps the model, takes her back down to the sewers, and re-fashions her stylish gown into a burka and ... . Well, I give up. Suffice to say, it's a post-modern Madman of Chaillot, with a preposterous erotic conclusion.

"Holy Motors" is writer-director Carax's homage to cinema as well as Paris, decidedly less sentimental than Woody Allen's. "Cinema is a territory," he says, "a place I live in ... a way of seeing things, of experiencing life. But making films is also supposed to be a profession."

Mr. Carax must keep a notepad by his bed for waking up from psychotropic dreams and scribbling them down for subsequent filming. This amazingly beautiful, playful endeavor is a kind of kaleidoscopic light-painting, celebrating both the exhilaration and the drudgery of that strangest of all occupations: acting. Denis Lavant's poly-performance is nothing short of brilliant.

Different films are aimed at different audiences. This one is for everybody (or nobody), but especially cineastes. Gotta love that group and that pretentious word. The movie is bonkers and self-indulgent in the extreme, and some may find it just annoying.

I was ready to check out during the lush Jacques Brel-type cabaret number toward the end, but then ... the final Darwinian touch (and last-minute explanation of that cryptic title) are redemptive.

See it to believe it, if you dare, as a metaphor for life, or the actor's life -- or whatever else you decide it's a metaphor for.

In French and English, playing at the Harris Theater, Downtown.


Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at


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