To call this “the latest” film from Leos Carax is slightly misleading since that would imply some degree of regularity. (The director has made three features in the last 21 years.) To call it a “love letter to cinema”—which indeed it is—would also be mildly deceptive because Carax’s deepest affection here is directed toward a more specific form of art within cinema (acting) and, in particular, a specific artist’s love for that form. Truth be told, Holy Motors is a love letter to a troglodyte.
The indomitable Denis Levant plays Oscar, a man whose peculiar job involves surreal role-playing throughout Paris. At one point he transforms himself—with elaborate makeup—into a sewer-dwelling primitive who then disrupts a photo shoot in the Père Lachaise cemetery. On another “assignment,” he dons a hi-tech motion-capture bodysuit and provides the gymnastic movements that form the core of a digital fantasy. And so he goes, absurdly on.
All of Oscar’s tasks have something to do with the zombie movie-theater audience (which is, no doubt, us) that is seen at the film’s beginning. The “motors” to which the title refers are both the limousines that transport Oscar and his colleagues around the city, and a metaphor for the divine storytelling spark that drives the world—and that appears to be dying. It’s an ingenious, half-mad triumph, and exactly what we expect from outlier Carax—one decade at a time.