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Review: Surreal “Holy Motors” follows a human chameleon’s wild day in the life of Paris

Eva Mendes
Eva Mendes and Denis Lavant in "Holy Motors."

For his third appointment of the day, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) outfits himself with a fake blind eye, a ratty red wig and beard, inch-long yellowed fingernails and a tattered green suit. He looks like Hell’s leprechaun. Erupting from a sewer manhole in Père Lachaise, he terrorizes the famed Parisian cemetery, gulping down mouthfuls of memorial bouquets and elbowing through throngs of midday tourists.

Giddily insane (and this is even before our hero bites off a bystander’s fingers), this sequence of French writer-director Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” is a liberating highlight. You won’t see anything else like it onscreen. Carax, the oddball auteur behind “The Lovers on the Bridge” and “Pola X,” delivers a willfully untethered, surreal stations-of-the-cross as his film follows M. Oscar from dawn until midnight through nine appointments in Paris.

He’s driven in a massive limousine by his chauffeur and factotum, Céline (elegant, razor-cheeked Edith Scob, the masked star of 1960’s “Eyes Without a Face”). The nature of these appointments is uncertain. So is the identity of the clients. And each session is overseen by an equally amorphous Agency. The only common thread is that M. Oscar prepares for each by studying client files in the back of the limousine (which resembles a messy theatrical dressing room), then gets into character by donning the appropriate wigs and costumes.

At one point he’s a sad dad driving his shy tween “daughter” home from a party, where she admits she was a wallflower. In another he’s an old babushka, hunchbacked on one of Paris’ bridges, begging for change and bemoaning the tragedy of her life. He provides solace as the wealthy dying uncle of a young woman. And after his eruption into Père Lachaise, he drags a supermodel (a gorgeous and game Eva Mendes) from her photo shoot into the sewers for a beauty-and-the-beast interlude.

As you might guess from the extremes of these scenarios, the tone of “Holy Motors” shifts nonstop. That’s intentional, because Carax is obviously interested, above all, in celebrating the many different genres and emotional tones that film can embrace. Through the course of his long day, M. Oscar is killed (or “killed”?) several times. And sometimes he snuffs his own doppelganger, in guises ranging from warehouse worker to cosmopolitan banker. At the 11th hour, Kylie Minogue turns up to tug the movie into Jacques Demy territory, singing a plaintive chanson as M. Oscar’s former flame. Or is she? More likely, she’s just another of the players in his busy day of appointments.

Minogue is fine, but “Holy Motors” rests almost entirely on Lavant, a longtime Carax collaborator. He has the ancient, weathered face of a guy who has seen too damned much but the compact, athletic body of a much younger man. As wild as some of the scenarios demand him to be, he’s most mesmerizing seen in the back of that limo, applying his newest disguise with the humorless self-discipline of a professional. A professional who may be coming to the end of his limits.

There’s a good, thematic reason why Carax intersperses his movie with snippets of Eadweard Muybridge-style silent-picture motion studies: a nude man posing and posturing on a bare stage for the camera’s inspection. The film suggests that we are all that guy, thrust out onstage buck naked, improvising the many roles required by us to get through the drama we greet afresh, each dawn, every day.

“Holy Motors.” With Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue. Written and directed by Leos Carax. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 115 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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