Film didn’t die of natural causes. It was, like the silent movie, murdered by an industry keen to modernize, doing business in the cloud, tossing out projectors and prints to make room for garish, password-protected baubles. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is artisanal rather than industrial, but it pays eccentric, sometimes ineffable tribute to an era of moving parts and physical objects, when seeing the wires was part of the trick.
Carax opens the film with a citation from Eadweard Muybridge’s landmark motion studies, but Holy Motors’ patron saint is George Méliès, the first to discover that movies could create reality rather than merely document it. Like a one-man version of a 1960s omnibus, Carax links a series of fantasias with the flimsiest of strings, casting Denis Lavant as a protean operative who stars in a series of disjunct scenarios. He’s an old woman, panhandling for change and muttering in a Slavic tongue; he’s an assassin, sent to murder a criminal whom he also resembles. He’s a crazed leprechaun with copper-bright hair, munching on graveyard flowers and abducting a blank-eyed supermodel (Eva Mendes). He’s an elderly man nearing death, coming out of his stupor for one final exchange with his tender caregiver. Lavant’s performance(s) is virtuosic in every sense. He’s as much acrobat as thespian, whipping his body around a motion-capture stage or adopting an old man’s arthritic shuffle.
Taken individually, Holy Motors’ vignettes are often astonishing, but the film lacks a center. Lavant disappears so thoroughly into his characters that there’s nothing to connect them. Carax makes a late, fitfully successful push for sentiment, climaxing with a sequence in which Kylie Minogue belts out a ballad in the ruins of an abandoned department store. It’s as if Carax spent the 13 years since Pola X stockpiling ideas and tried to cram them all into the same movie, concerned that it might be his last, or perhaps relishing the freedom of his final salvo.