Holy Motors: Cannes Review

Holy Motors

This year’s wild card: a French auteur film about time traveling and parallel lives with plenty of SFX and a cast including Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes.

Holy smoke: Leos Carax is back with a combustible Roman candle of a film.

French auteur Leos Carax returns with a film that's "exhilarating," "heartbreaking" and "completely bonkers."

Exhilarating, opaque, heartbreaking and completely bonkers – French auteur Leos Carax’s so-called comeback film, Holy Motors, is a deliciously preposterous piece of filmmaking that appraises life and death and everything in between, reflected in a funhouse mirror.

It’s brave and foolish. After a rapturous reception at its first Cannes screening, the bewitching French-German co-production immediately bolts to the front of the pack in the race for the Palme d’Or and into an elated tempest of debate and speculation.

Beyond a segment of the 2008 triptych Tokyo!, the elusive Carax hasn’t made a film since his cult Cannes competition entry Pola X 13 years ago. He’s obviously been bottling up some seriously wacky ideas and they all blow their lids at once in this avant-garde sci-fi concoction that represents – maybe – a scream in the night against our enslavement to the virtual world.

We can only sit back and marvel as Carax’s id, in the shape of weather-beaten French character actor and long-time collaborator Denis Lavant, runs wild through the streets of Paris, tossing out visually stunning sequences that are by turns erotic, repugnant and sad.

The boisterous accordion jam alone is worth the price of admission.

Smoking like a train, Lavant inhabits eleven – count ’em – different roles during the course of a 24-hour odyssey as he is chauffeured about the city by his attentive driver, Celine (the glorious Edith Scob). It’s performance art, with an interval, and makes the most of the actor’s incredible, pliant face and acrobat’s body.

Here he is, a naked, flower-munching leprechaun being rocked to sleep by Eva Mendes’ burqa-wearing fashion model. And there, an old crone with wiry gray hair and a beggar’s cup.

He’s affecting as a concerned father remonstrating with his daughter over her shyness at a party, and scary as a flick knife-wielding hitman who excises his mirror self. Funny, too.

Carax, perhaps best known for early Juliette Binoche-starrers The Night is Young and Lovers on the Bridge, goes totally for broke with this mad hatter’s tea party, lobbing domesticated chimpanzees and chatty limousines into the mix seemingly at random, and often the only reasonable response in the face of such unhinged lunacy is to laugh with delight.

So what’s it all about?

Don’t ask Australian pop pixie Kylie Minogue’s Jean Seberg-cum-air-stewardess character, who sings a forlorn original love song backed by the Berlin Music Ensemble before leaping to her death. She is one of the many women Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar loves and leaves as he goes from “appointment” to “appointment,” taking on different guises, increasingly weary and searching for some peace, always at the mercy of the mysterious “agency.”

Carax’s visual style, aided by the cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who last year won a Cesar for Of Gods and Men, is swooningly romantic, punctuated by virtuoso flights of fancy such as the stunning motion-capture compositions. There’s a beautiful fluidity to the sequences that would seem to be at odds with the weird juxtapositions, but that’s the way it is in a dream.

Carax, who appears briefly in an overture to the film, says he is angry with the way people have succumbed so completely to the virtual world, turning their computer into their home, their hearth. In a world where people clutch their smart phones like security blankets and store all their treasured memories on a hard drive, he just may have a point.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival
Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue
Production companies: Piere Grise Production/Theo Films/Arte France Cinema/Pandora Film/WDR-Arte
Writer/director: Leos Carax
Producer: Didier Abot
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Florian Sanson
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, minutes