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Léos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS is a dazzling tribute to Paris, cinema, and the art of storytelling

Léos Carax’s Holy Motors is a dazzling tribute to Paris, cinema, and the art of storytelling

HOLY MOTORS (Léos Carax, 2012)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Tuesday, August 8, 7:00
Series runs through August 31

French writer-director Léos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang) has made only five feature films in his thirty-plus-year career, a sadly low output for such an innovative, talented director, but in 2012 he gave birth to his masterpiece, the endlessly intriguing, confusing, and exhilarating Holy Motors. His first film since 1999’s POLA X, the work is a surreal tale of character and identity, spreading across multiple genres in a series of bizarre, entertaining, and often indecipherable set pieces. Holy Motors opens with Carax himself playing le Dormeur, a man who wakes up and walks through a hidden door in his room and into a movie theater where a packed house, watching King Vidor’s The Crowd, is fast asleep. The focus soon shifts to Carax alter ego Denis Lavant as Monsieur Oscar, a curious character who is being chauffeured around Paris in a white stretch limo driven by the elegant Céline (Édith Scob). Oscar has a list of assignments for the day that involve his putting on elaborate costumes — including revisiting his sewer character from Merde, Carax’s contribution to the 2009 omnibus Tokyo! that also included shorts by Michel Gondry and Bon Joon-ho — and becoming immersed in scenes that might or might not be staged, blurring the lines between fiction and reality within, of course, a completely fictional world to begin with. It is as if each scene is a separate little movie, and indeed, Carax, whose middle name is Oscar, has said that he made Holy Motors after several other projects fell through, so perhaps he has melded many of those ideas into this fabulously abstruse tale that constantly reinvents itself.

The film is also a loving tribute to Paris, the cinema, and the art of storytelling, with direct and indirect references to Franz Kafka, E. T. A. Hoffman, Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney, Eadweard Muybridge, Georges Franju, and others. (Scob, who starred in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, at one point even pulls out a mask similar to the one she wore in that classic thriller.) The outstanding cast also features Kylie Minogue, who does indeed get to sing; Eva Mendes as a robotic model; and Michel Piccoli as the mysterious Man with the Birthmark. Holy Motors is screening August 8 in the MoMA series “Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction,” which includes seventy films from around the world that question what is human; the festival continues through August 31 with such other unusual works as Felipe Cazals’s El año de la peste, David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Videodrome, Alex Proyas’s Dark City, the aforementioned Eyes Without a Face, and Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth and Nozim To’laho’jayev’s Budet laskovyi dozhd (“There Will Come Soft Rains”), introduced by Neil deGrasse-Tyson.

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