11/05/2012 03:09 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

AFI Review: Leos Carax's Holy Motors

Two films showed in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year involving a man going on a long, one-day journey with multiple stops and exits from his stretch limousine. David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis was concerned with societal upheaval; Leos Carax's Holy Motors is concerned with whether people are still engaged by cinema. They both use the limousine for sexy contours: it's a sleek, modern, yet already archaic vessel (perhaps like cinema itself), and their drivers are more human than those in the back seat. Both are also concerned with where the limousines sleep at night. In Holy Motors, they don't sleep well; they are worried that they will soon drop out of favor, along with opulence and action films, parked in a garage with letters to the entrance, that light up like a great, old cinematheque. Holy Motors begins gorgeously and dreamlike. Patrons are either asleep or dead in a movie theater. A man awakes in a hotel room with a key on his finger. The key goes to a door that is covered in a pine mosaic, and opens up into the balcony of the theater; a large dog rumbles down the aisles, and the audience sleeps. The audience of Holy Motors will follow Oscar (Denis Lavant) and his limo driver (Edith Scob, of Eyes Without a Face, which the film holds a cheery and direct reference to) as he goes on a series of "assignments." In each "assignment" he changes wardrobe, make-up, posture, language and swaps lives, gender, and even perhaps two different animal kingdoms. Holy Motors is two things: a love note to performance (the film could essentially be titled "Being Denis Lavant," as the performer gamely engages in odd scenarios with enough ferocity that it does warrant an entire film just to follow his and Carax's creations) and a love note to cinema. In the middle of the film the exploits are given a little meaning in an appearance by French screen legend Michel Piccoli (a frequent actor in Luis Buñuel's films) who wonders if anyone is watching whatever programmed scenarios they conjure up anymore. Oscar laments that cameras are getting smaller and smaller, making his commitment to performance harder to sustain (their scene of bickering is ultimately an argument about film vs. digital). So that is what Holy Motors is: an episodic film with dreamy bookends, a few winks at other films and the current state of cinema and audiences, laid at the altar of a very committed actor. The assignments are best not given away. So the question after viewing is, is this indeed worth watching? I would say very much so. Some assignments are very funny, some grotesque, some are enchanting and some are a bit underwhelming. They don't all work, but most do. The sections that the viewer leaves enjoying will ultimately shape how they think about the film. For me, the "assignments" that leave a mark are the dreamlike opening and closing, a strange and sexy motion capture dance, an attempt at identity theft and a conversation with Kylie Minogue, as a real or fake ex-lover, as she and Oscar walk up a winding staircase; the scene breaks its Last Year at Marinebad unspoken love spell when Minogue breaks into song (an original song for the film), and it is a touching reward. One that doesn't work for me, interestingly enough, is a flower-eating sewer dweller that terrorizes a city. The character first appeared -- as performed by Lavant -- in Carax's short film Merde that was a part of a directorial triptych Tokyo! in 2008 (featuring direction from Carax, Joon-Ho Bong and Michel Gondry). Holy Motors is Carax's first feature-length film since 1999's controversial adaptation of Herman Melville's incest novel Pierre, filmed as Pola X. Carax had numerous film ideas that were never fully realized and Holy Motors is essentially a litmus test of his impulses. What will you watch? All the assignments are individual films and characters that get a short treatment, launched by Carax's last short treatment in Tokyo!

The film ends with a beautiful answer to the question that Robert Pattinson repeatedly asks in Cosmopolis: (an unlinked film that will forever be linked by Cannes and limos), "Where do all the limos go at night?" In Holy Motors the limousines begin the conversation for the audience as they leave the theater. If you are a sleepy filmgoer, like how the film opened, what sort of cinema do you want to see? Inside Holy Motors there is an entire film, or at least sections of a film, that will reward adventurous cinemagoers: those that seek out the cinematheque not as a place to slumber, but to be challenged.

Holy Motors screens Saturday November 3rd at 7:00 p.m. at The Egyptian Theatre and Tuesday November 6th at 1:15 p.m. at the Chinese 2 Theatre, as part of the AFI Film Festival; register for tickets at