At some fashion shows, clothes come down the runway that make you ashamed to be dressed at all. How can you wear jeans and a T-shirt when that model is wearing a whole ship? You just have to leave and start over tomorrow, presumably with the Robert Louis Stevenson collection. “Holy Motors” is the movie equivalent of that. Why settle for the sexual uplift of “The Sessions,” with Helen Hunt therapeutically pleasuring a disabled John Hawkes, when you can watch a bloody gnome lick Eva Mendes’s armpit for absolutely no humane reason at all? It’s couture ridiculousness.
The film has sprung from the mind of the Frenchman Leos Carax and ought to be seen to be believed, on the largest screen you can find, and probably sober, too, since it becomes its own narcotic. The opening credits feature three of the best consecutive words of the year — “et Eva Mendes”! — and the sort of acting from Denis Lavant that sets aside matters of pure craft and embraces bodily instinct (where Mendes is concerned, even the ones a man can’t control).
I don’t know what Lavant is playing here because I’ve never seen anything like it. The movie consists of him changing characters in a stretch limo. After he gets into the car as a billion-dollar titan, he exits as a crippled homeless babushka, then emerges once more in a full-body suit with motion-capture sensors to simulate an action sequence on a soundstage, then running on a treadmill with a machine gun, then intercourse with an Amazonian figure in a matching getup. She kicks off her shoes as if it will really make a difference opposite a force as runty as Lavant.
Eventually, the man slips into a new costume. Inside the limo, I’d call it leprechaun record executive. But scurrying down into the sewers amid the homeless and, above ground, frantically eating the flowers at a cemetery and assaulting the visitors? It’s “Troll 7.” But his scrambling over people and headstones does land him at a photo shoot where Mendes is Mendes-ing for a scraggly photographer. As the cameraman shoots, he cries out “Beauty, beauty,” then gets a load of the troll and falls deeper in love: “He’s so weird,” moans the photographer, snapping away as though what he’d actually said was, “He’s so hot.”
Anyway, the troll bites off the fingers of the cameraman’s assistant, races up to Mendes, licks under her arm, and scuttles off to the sewers with her over his shoulder and proceeds to eat up her cash. Even if John Waters and Stephen Colbert got a movie into theaters tomorrow, it wouldn’t be as sickly hilarious and knowingly off as this sequence. (Mendes looks like an “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” doll, only Carax has spent the battery money.)
It’s possible that this man, whom his driver (Édith Scob) calls, perhaps with a Hollywood wink, “Monsieur Oscar,” might have a “normal” persona, too. He spins by a party and picks up a girl who’s been sprinkling her hair with glitter. It’s his daughter, and they proceed to have what passes for a poignant heart-to-heart about her worsening bashfulness. There’s almost no point in going on any further because all of Carax’s imagery and scenarios will exceed what I type.
This is his first film since 1999’s “Pola X,” in which the director put a stick of TNT into Herman Melville and turned the smithereens into sensual dream-art. “Holy Motors” is more of the same, just with extra more. The headstones at that cemetery say in French “Visit my site,” and after hearing Kylie Minogue the ringtone and Kylie Minogue the party-starting jam, we see the real thing in Monsieur Oscar’s big musical number (she does the singing). It’s not the celebratory release you’d expect, but a ballad in which one of Earth’s most incandescent pop stars dons a trench coat and Julie Andrews wig and lights nothing up. Lest there be any confusion, the star of “Holy Motors” is its maker.
There are people who will find this tiresome, like their leg is being pulled over and over. But for Carax I was happy to put up with it for two hours. For him, I’m a millipede. “Holy Motors” is a movie you could imagine coming from Marcel Duchamp, Grace Jones, or a caveman opening a bottle of Gaultier perfume sent back in time. Truthfully, it’s a vehicular picaresque that deserves a permanent parking spot in the David Lynch-David Cronenberg garage. Carax happily rebukes the comforts and monotonies of commercial art and mass entertainment. At the moment, there are a lot of directors begging with comfort food for your attention at the box office. Pot pies are fine. But consider throwing Carax some of your money. He’s the rare filmmaker who’ll put it where his mouth is.