Holy Motors is the antidote to the bloated pretentiousness of Cloud Atlas, and likely the purest example of an art film that will surface in 2012. Director Léos Carax is as noncommercial as they come, mostly missing in action since 1999’s Polax and his bit part in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely. Holy Motors expands on his contribution to 2008 short-film trilogy Tokyo!, in which actor Denis Lavant played a Quasimodo-like figure loose on the streets. Rather than simply expanding that story to full length or assembling an ensemble for multiple storylines, he composed a love letter to Paris relying on a low-to-no-budget aesthetic and Lavant’s extraordinary range.
The results are dazzling, with Lavant’s Oscar being driven around Paris in a limousine by his driver, Céline (Edith Scob), on an odyssey of “appointments.” Oscar is presented to us at first as a wealthy man discussing the need to be armed in the face of rising resentment of the rich. His next appointment requires being made up as a street gypsy, suggesting our protagonist may be an actor. By the time Oscar applies makeup again after practicing martial arts in a motion-capture suit at a motion-capture studio, Carax is taking us on a surreal journey where anything can happen.
The motion-capture sequence is dazzling, as astonishing in its conception as its execution. Carax packs a lot of punch into the visuals, but Lavant’s effectiveness is indispensable. He wears his Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney influences on his sleeve, with the latter’s makeup box being paid homage as Levant assumes 11 personas (according to the credits). Even better, Scob gets a nod for her role in French horror classic Eyes Without a Face, Carax squeezing tributes into a grab bag of movie genres in under two hours.