Not rated, but contains some profanity, and moments of suggestiveness, graphic nudity and violence.
3 1/2 Stars
According to the movie's closing credits, actor Denis Lavant has 11 different roles in French director Leos Carax's latest feature, "Holy Motors," which makes its Memphis debut Thursday, eight months after its Cannes Film Festival premiere.
Lavant's central identity in the film appears to be that of a professional mystery man referred to as Monsieur Oscar, who spends much of his time in a stretch limousine that functions as a dressing room and costume and prop warehouse. Could Oscar's name be a mocking reference to the Academy Awards? After all, both these Oscars have oddly shaped bald heads. Maybe mockery is not intended; perhaps Carax is boasting that Lavant's performance in this movie is worthy of an Oscar, which, truly, it is.
Lavant also appears as a sort of milky-eyed Mandarin leprechaun who — accompanied by Akira Ifukube's theme music from "Godzilla" (1954) — emerges from a sewer to kidnap a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and to chew flowers stolen from graves marked with headstones that read — in a brilliant sight gag — "Visitez Mon Site" (French for "Visit My Website").
Lavant's leprechaun persona is identified in the credits as "Monsieur Merde" (a French vulgarism for excrement). Is the movie-mad Carax suggesting an equivalency between the film industry's Oscar and merde? Or am I finding a connection where none is intended? And if I am, does that make my observation invalid? These are the kind of thoughts inspired by "Holy Motors."
As should be obvious, "Holy Motors" — which screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art — is not in any way a typical movie. It is not made for passive viewers, even if it is at its most engaging and even powerful when it is at its most playful — when it is "so weird," as one character observes — rather than when it directly addresses ideas about life and death. The movie is a puzzle meant to be enjoyed, not solved. Like life itself? As Oscar says at one point: "We're having a ball in the back of beyond."
"Holy Motors" was voted the best film of 2012 by the critics who participated in the 7th annual Indiewire movie poll. ("The Master" was second, while "Zero Dark Thirty" was third.) It was named the third-best film of the year in the similarly prestigious annual film poll conducted by the Village Voice.
Filled with references to movie history, "Holy Motors" flatters the cine-literate. This helps explain why it has been embraced by eggheads, serious film buffs and other representatives of the constituency most likely to swoon when 75-year-old French actress Edith Scob, who plays Oscar's chauffeur, dons a blank mask similar to the one she wore almost 55 years ago in the Gallic horror masterpiece "Eyes Without a Face."
"Holy Motors" begins, essentially, in what appears to be a bedroom in an airport motel, where a man (Carax himself) awakens and uses a Cronenbergian finger key to open a door hidden behind some forest wallpaper. A passage leads him to the balcony of an apparent movie theater, where an audience is silent and rapt, even as a floppy-fleshed bloodhound stalks the aisle.
This dreamlike prologue is followed by the introduction of Oscar, who initially seems to be a wealthy financial wheeler-dealer who begins his day in the
back of a stretch limousine (like Robert Pattinson in Cronenberg's recent "Cosmopolis"), expressing a lack of sympathy for the less fortunate. "We get the blame for their pain," he says. "Bodyguards are no longer enough. We've got to get guns, too. Fast."
Oscar and his chauffeur then embark on a series of nine "appointments," a schedule that leads the characters through Paris and carries the film through its morning-to-night day-in-the-life structure. At each stop, the Lon Chaney-esque Oscar emerges in a different disguise. One time, he is a bent beggarwoman on the Pont Neuf bridge (site of Carax's most celebrated film, 1991's "Lovers on the Bridge"); on another occasion, he is a Stalin-mustached assassin who — in a wonderful commentary on the dead-end nature of violence — proves interchangeable with this victim.
The appointments give the movie an anthology flavor. For example, a sequence in which Oscar portrays a less-than-ideal father driving his daughter home from her first teenage party is a fascinating mini-movie in its own right, but I was bored by an interlude in which Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue serenades Oscar inside the colossal, defunct Samaritaine department store in Paris.
Only the fifth feature directed by Carax in almost 30 years (and his first since "Pola X" in 1999), "Holy Motors" was shot digitally, but — as its title suggests — it is in part a lament for a vanishing filmmaking process that was laborious and mechanical, yet rewarding. After returning from one of his role-playing assignments, Oscar complains of his audience: "Some don't believe in what they're watching any more." (Martin Scorsese voiced an almost identical worry about digital cinema in the recent documentary "Side by Side.") "I miss the cameras," Oscar adds — even as the movie in which he appears affirms the validity of digital cinema.
In French with English subtitles, "Holy Motors" screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Admission is $8, or $6 for museum members. For more information, call 901-544-6298 or visit brooksmuseum.org.