Watching Holy Motors, French director Léos Carax’s (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, POLA X) first film in 13 years, we continually have to remind ourselves that the movie in front of us is the same as the one from 20 minutes previous. This film, a volatile alchemic concoction of cinematic possibility, does not lend itself to easy classification — it is both fantasy and science fiction, with the intensity of a drama and the sad overtures of a love story; it has moments of sheer comedy, musical interludes, and ill-fitting characters like domesticated primates and talking limos. In short, over the course of just under two hours, it sweeps into its grasp the full range of artistic moviemaking experience. After a season of conventional plotlines and would-be fantasies that barely got off the ground, Holy Motors feels like a gasp of pure oxygen. This is the most breathtakingly vibrant film of the year.

We spend only one day with Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a man of small body and ruined face, as he rides through Paris small and large in a white stretch limousine driven by chauffeur and confidant Céline (Edith Scob) in order to complete a series of “appointments.” But each minute with Oscar is a new revelation. His appointments require him to don elaborate disguises — personas, really — and his limousine functions as a dressing room and wardrobe where he tediously applies latex face masks, wigs, fake beards and fingernails, and arms himself with guns or knives as the appointment requires. It’s hard not to think of Robert Pattinson in his black limousine riding solo through Manhattan in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which came out earlier this year, but with Carax’s wildly inventive script, stunning cinematography by Yves Cape and Caroline Champetier and the chameleon abilities of Denis Lavant, Holy Motors reaches such astonishing heights of provocation and originality that in comparison Cosmopolis’s cold detachment and sleek sterility barely registers a pulse.

For one appointment Oscar becomes an old gypsy woman begging on the streets of Paris; for another he practices combat choreography in a motion sensor suit on a special effects stage, engaging in snaky animation sex with a supple blonde in a twin red bodysuit; later on, in a scene that brutally razes to the ground all conventions of parental love, he is a father reproaching his meek teenage daughter after a party. He kills two men, is killed twice, and witnesses the death of his lover and colleague Eva (or is it Jean? — by this point, the difference between the actors and their parts is thoroughly muddled), played by Kylie Minogue. Oscar’s longest appointment is reserved for Monsieur Merde, a brilliantly weird, sewer-dwelling leprechaun-troll, who made a previous appearance in Carax’s short segment “Merde” for the three-part anthology Tokyo! (2008). As in that film, here Mr. Merde emerges from the sewers to eat flowers and cavort the streets with crooked gait, causing confusion, mayhem, and general hysteria. In the Père Lachaise Cemetery he kidnaps a regally austere and extraordinarily passive fashion model (a magnificent Eva Mendes), and carries her off to his dank, flower-strewn lair for some wardrobe adjustments.

The dreamlike opening of Holy Motors shows an old man (Carax in a cameo) waking up in his bedroom and emerging through a hidden door to see a sleeping audience in a silent theater. To say that this is a film about the captivating power of cinema itself, the spectacle of the screen, or the conflation of art and reality, would be on the mark. In Oscar’s world, his life and his art are a fluid whole; the only distinction between acting a part and living it seems to be the opening and closing of the limousine door. If beauty is truth, Oscar’s work is to inhabit the lives of impossible characters and make them beautiful in the process. In more concrete terms, Holy Motors is a tribute to acting and the multiple worlds to which a single actor can transport us (or, more specifically, a tribute to the astounding talent of Lavant, Carax’s longtime collaborator, who has managed to play the roles of nine separate films in this single one).

Put yet another way, the film shows the ravages of art on the artist. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche likened artistic talent to a monster: “If one has a talent, one is also its victim; one lives under the vampirism of one’s talent.” Though each of Oscar’s disguises is an entirely unpredictable and pleasurable surprise, he maintains a signature world-weariness throughout. He is tired and worn; he suffers tremendously in the small confines of the limousine posterior. This makes the film both profoundly beautiful and profoundly dark — there are moments of spontaneous hilarity but they are underlined by violent anxiety, as when a worried Céline bursts out into laughter at an unexpected joke from Oscar. Overall, Oscar’s world, which is really only slightly more absurd than our own, contains little joy; only great sadness, enormous fatigue, and the irrevocable procession of age. Oscar’s last appointment of the day is a devastating revelation that there is no break from the relentless demands of this kind of work, as he continues to give his life to, as he says, “the beauty of the act.” In every expression and gesture he holds great weariness as well as unerring grace, an artist to the very end.

As Holy Motors is a French film of stunning cinematographic effect, and with a certain tone of worldly generality, it is hardly surprising that its backdrop be cinema’s nurturing mother and seductive lover, the city of lights. We might be forgiven for tiring of cinematic odes to Paris — how to top the frenzied energy of 1960s Zazie dans le métro, or the sordid emotion of Last Tango in Paris, or the uncontrolled rage of La Haine? — but Holy Motors is something altogether different, somehow combining all these sides of the city with familiar shots of Paris — the Eiffel tower, La Défense, Cimétiere du Père-Lachaise — seen through limousine windows, which gives a feeling of decadence to not only the ride, but the very career that Oscar is invested in. Could Holy Motors have been set on the breezy boulevards of Los Angeles, or among the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai? Certainly not — only Paris has the exquisitely tragic look of a modern city forging forward among the ruins of the romance and the glory of a former age. Holy Motors is Carax’s first feature film in more than a decade, and savvy cinephiles will recognize numerous tips of the hat to movies of years past — perhaps this film is an artistic oeuvre’s decadent last movement, signaling the end of something: a career, a life, or an industry.

“Holy Motors” won the Gold Hugo (best film prize) as well as two other awards at Chicago’s International Film Festival this October, and took the Prix de la Jeunesse (the Youth Award) at Cannes in May. It will be touring around the United States through March; check the Web site for theaters and schedule.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

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