What does one even say about Holy Motors? Can you explain it? Recommend it? It certainly seems impossible to convey the haphazard disregard this film has for conventional metrics for judging a film as good or bad. The most you can really do is bear witness in a travelogue sort-of-way, perhaps relating its hazy visions in a manner along the lines of "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall". If this sounds intimidating, don't let it be: there probably wasn't a more rambunctious, playful film released in all of last year. If you've been longing for a live-action, French, feature-length homage to the Looney Tunes (but perhaps even less restrained by the laws of physics and decency), Holy Motors has your number.
Even if it's a painfully inadequate identifier, Holy Motors might be best understood as an anthology film. In the very beginning (after a brief nonsensical prologue involving a silent crowd watching the silent film The Crowd), Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant, in an Oscar-worthy performance) is seen leaving his home, escorted in a limousine by Celine (Edith Scob). In the back of his limousine, he begins to apply makeup and assume the form of different characters, who then venture out into the world to participate in increasingly bizarre episodes. These episodes (in perhaps the most memorable, he assumes the form of Mr. Merde, a green-suited, belligerent vagrant who kidnaps Eva Mendes's remarkably complacent model and takes her down to the sewer) never assume any kind of connectivity, but they're all that gives Motors any kind of shape or continuity.
To watch Holy Motors is to drastically rethink the way the way that you watch movies. In the early days of Soviet film-making, Lev Kuleshov defined what came later came to be known as the Kuleshov effect: by placing a series of shots in sequence, the human mind will instinctively infer a causal connection between them, even if the same figure never appears twice. We want to find a narrative, no matter what raw materials we're provided with (analogies to the way that people go through life to be made at your own risk). With its talking cars and musical sequences, Holy Motors pushes the effect to its absolute breaking point, throwing together bizarre images with such abandon that it's almost daring you to lose patience with it. For many viewers (including sensible, intelligent ones), this might prove altogether too much, but for those willing to accept it on its own terms, Motors stands comfortably beside some daunting historical precedent.
A broad perspective might link Holy Motors to Fantasia, another anthology film with a preoccupation with music, but a stronger connection might be made to the work of Luis Bunuel, with director Leos Carax as his heir apparent. While Bunuel had a political philosophy that is not present here, both are informed by an anarchic spirit that seeks to defy authority by making it look ridiculous rather than with bold, indignant statements. In the case of Motors, that authority might be the art world (it's hard to say the zealous fashion photographers in this film make anyone look good), or it might just be the funeral parlor clamminess of art films in general, but it's hard not to laugh with genuine shock as Carax artfully constructs a scene, then sabotages it by having someone's finger bitten off. Even if it can be hard to pin down (and frustratingly so), Holy Motors is animated by a jarring refusal to be serious for even a moment, made all the more powerful for the brilliance of its technical execution. In the dead zone between the stultifying self-righteousness of Oscar season and the mechanical apathy of the summer, it's an invaluable contribution.
There's a making-of titled "Drive In", an interview with Kylie Minogue, and the international and US trailer.
"Holy Motors" is on sale March 5, 2013 and is not rated. Foreign. Written and directed by Leos Carax. Starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Leos Carax.