Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/14
Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Film
Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Actor
Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Cinematography
World premiere: 23 May, 2012, Cannes Film Festival

Several days later, I'm still not certain that I've gotten my head all the way around Holy Motors, the fifth feature by director Leos Carax, and the first in the 21st Century. And to be frank, I'm not sure that it's possible or desirable to do so: the film is such a giddy explosion of ideas and conflicting styles tied together in one grand package that "solving" it would do nothing but rob the film of its energy and playful insanity.

In the grand tradition of French movies by crazy visionaries, Holy Motors is an exercise in both film history and film criticism, though in a far more elliptical and even surreal way than e.g. Band of Outsiders or Irma Vep. The film opens with what proves to be a recurring motif, show a brief loop of a motion study of a naked man exercising (shot by Étienne-Jules Marey, one of the first pioneers of the medium along with Eadweard Muybridge), cinema from before there was cinema, and the most analogue moment in a film where Carax, against his will, was obliged to use a digital camera to save money. It's a perfect birth-of-movies moment in a film that will spend the next two hours exploring as much as it can about the artform that followed in that moment's wake - adapted from the scraps of several projects that Carax hasn't been able to get off the ground in the 13 years since Pola X, the film spans multiple genres popular across several generations of filmmaking, celebrating everything from silent cinema to motion capture - and pointedly demonstrates that the key fascination of motion photography in its earliest form, the shape and movement of the human body, remains the center of all cinematic storytelling: Holy Motors itself is most obviously a game about how one man, Carax's frequent collaborator Denis Lavant, can change his shape, personality, and and physical presence through acting and make-up, which means that one theme of this picture is unchanged from Marey's initial experiments: look at this man's movement! Is the mutability of the human form not fascinating?

And that's just the first gesture in a movie that then immediately jumps heartily into surrealism as a man (Carax himself, significantly) wakes up or maybe doesn't, finds a hidden door in his apartment behind a wall painted with eerily 3-D trees, and stumbles into a large movie theater filled with animals and people watching the 1928 masterpiece The Crowd. Only after this does Holy Motors begin properly - so do we suppose that it was also screening in that theater? That is the dream the sleeping man who is also the alter-ego for the film's director returns to whenever he leaves that screening room? That it is a continuation of the same exact dream?

Who knows, and honestly, who cares - the film has informed us that it's going to be an adventure in the act of watching movies, and that's really all that matters. And certainly, an experiment in how we watch movies is what follows: Holy Motors is, at its simplest level, about M. Oscar (Lavant), who rides in an extremely large white limousine driven by a woman named Céline (Edith Scob), and has to work through a series of nine assignments on this day: who issues those assignments and why is never exactly made clear (Michel Piccoli cameos as a higher-up in whatever organization Oscar works for, and only makes things more confusing), although the final scene and the title are both suggestive. At any rate, the assignments consist of playing people - not like an actor plays people, but people in real life situations - and throughout his day, Oscar will have been a crazy bag lady, a hitman killing his own doppelgänger, a mocap actor recording a fight sequence and a sex scene, M. Merde from Carax's short contribution to the Tokyo! anthology a few years back (the Merde sequence in this film is everything I wanted from that meandering short and then some), among others. That he has a personal life in amongst all the dress-up is made clear when he briefly meets a former lover, played in a shockingly effective cameo by Kylie Minogue, so the whole thing isn't just a simple metaphor for how we bury ourselves beneath layers of feigned identity. Or hell, maybe it is. It's the film's one weakness, if that's even the right word, that it suggests so many possible interpretations without necessarily following through on any of them, though a version of Holy Motors that insisted more on its "meaning" would be a version that I, for one, would be much less interested in watching.

Anyway, the most consistent and best meaning is, "this is what movies are": they are violent revenge pictures, they are musicals (two separate numbers, in fact, the first of which was such a shocking, unexpected, and hugely delightful sequence that I absolutely refuse to spoil a word of it, though it might well be my favorite moment in any movie I've seen so far this year), they are sexy - but they are nasty sexy, with both of the film's two sex scenes being in different ways fucked-up - they are beautifully impressionist and they are grimily realistic. And not just what they are onscreen, but how they are made: Carax's dislike for newfangled toys is obvious enough given his litany of references both overt (Scob, one of the main characters in Eyes Without a Face, is used in an extraordinarily obvious reference to that movie), and implicit, his sarcastic parody of contemporary mainstream cinema in the form of an apparent Spider-Man parody, his loving incorporation of 19th Century motion studies, and his stated reluctance to use digital cinematography, but even he concedes the value of motion capture, the newest of all new technologies, by showing how the raw footage of an actor in one of those ridiculous body suits covered with electronic sensors can be an extravagantly beautiful mixture of light and dark (the sequence does end with a joke at mocap's expense, showing how this beautiful footage is in service of a crude, ill-done, and incredibly dumb CGI effect.

So what the film is best at, then, is sensation: throwing movement and images at us nonstop, dazzling and delighting us and making sure that we're never bored, even for a moment. Which might sound like it's just a shallow piece of eye candy (which is surely not the case, anyway: too much insight into the way that images create meaning for that), except that because the images that populate the film are so consistently unique and inventive, the ideas behind every scene so loopy and enthusiastically weird, Holy Motors feels truly personal and idiosyncratic and fresh, a complete original, and while it doesn't quite achieve perfection - like any collection of what are basically short films stitched together, some ideas land better than others, and there's no overriding arc that explains why these sequences must be told in this order - it's still one of the only completely essential films of 2012.