Holy Motors, the metaphysical fantasia by Leos Carax, is baffling by design. It's also gorgeous, sporadically riveting, and completely insane.
The film follows 24 hours in the life of Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), a shape-shifting man who spends his days executing various "appointments," each of which requires him to be someone new. He's transported from appointment to appointment by his trusty driver Celine (Edith Scob), in a limo big enough to contain a makeup table, costume storage, and a fireplace.
First, he's a wizened old street beggar, ignored by passers-by on the street.
Then he's a motion-sensor-laden acrobat on some sort of virtual soundstage, where he executes intricate stage combat before simulating sex with a motion-sensor-laden woman.
Then he's a milky-eyed monster troll who ventures into the sewer and emerges at a cemetery, where the tombstones says "Visit my website" and our monster troll devours flowers and terrifies onlookers. Ultimately, he comes upon a photo shoot, featuring a gorgeous top model (Eva Mendes) and a jittery photographer who'd love to shoot the milk-eyed troll. Instead, the troll bites off the fingers of the photographer's assistant and kidnaps the model, dragging her into the sewer and eventually giving her the full burqa treatment. (Also, his penis is blurred out, thanks to Netflix's censors.)
Then he's back to middle-aged man form, in which he drives to pick up his teenage daughter from a party. Father and daughter converse, then argue, and the father leaves in a huff, telling his caught-in-a-lie daughter, "Your punishment is to be you—to live with yourself".....
Then comes "The Interval," in which our man marches purposefully through a gorgeous candlelit castle with an accordian. He is soon joined by a parade of accordianists and it becomes a full musical number.
Then he's in a track suit and confronting a skeezy long-haired guy, with whom he has words before stabbing him in the neck. As the man bleeds out, Mr. Oscar cuts the man's hair, shaves his beard, and ultimately makes the dead-or-dying man look exactly like himself. But as the scene's wrapping up, the stabbed man abruptly awakes long enough to stab Mr. Oscar in the neck, exactly as he had been stabbed, with the identical men left bleeding side-by-side on the floor.
Then Mr. Oscar is visited in the limo by his boss/benefactor, who tells Oscar that viewership is down and people don't necessarily believe what they see anymore. (This scene also contains what feels like one of the film's clearest questions: After the boss points out that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Oscar asks, "And if there's no more beholder?")
Then we're driving around with Mr. Oscar, looking out at a Paris that slips into a view seen through night-vision goggles, making the whole of Paris look like a video game simulation.
Then Oscar orders Celine to stop the limo, and, brandishing a gun, he races through the street and into a cafe, where he promptly shoots a banker and is shot himself in return. Celine comes to retrieve the wounded Oscar, telling bystanders, "Forgive him, there's been a mixup."
Then Oscar is an old man in a stately old mansion, where he's visited at his bedside by his niece. The pair has a slow deathbed conversation about love and pain and gratitude. The scene abruptly ends when both Oscar and the woman playing his niece admit they have to hurry off to other appointments.
En route to Oscar's next appointment, Celine has a fender-bender with another limo, whose driver she calls "an ectoplasm on wheels." While the crash is being sorted, Oscar wanders off for a walk with the passenger of the other limo, who is someone who knows Oscar and is played by Kylie Minogue. They reminisce elliptically, and she breaks into song as they stroll through a huge warehouse littered with mannequin parts.
Then we're at Oscar's final assignment, when we're finally allowed to see inside one of his assignment dossiers—this one has papers showing "Your House," "Your Wife," and "Your Daughters." Oscar enters his modest suburban home and is greeted by his wife and child, both of whom are chimpanzees. The family hugs and gazes out a window.
Finally, Celine is returning the limousine to the Holy Motors warehouse, where she parks and walks off with a green mask over her face (similar to the mask the same actress wore in the 1960 classic Eyes Without a Face). When she's gone, the dozen or so parked limousines in the warehouse begin conversing, flashing their headlights syllabically and grousing about life.
Our main entry point for discussion: WTF???
(For me, it's a gorgeous puzzle about the roles we continually play for each other, and how one person's suffering is another person's amusement, and how weird and beautiful French art films can be. At times, Holy Motors also seems like Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle writ small. But mostly I connected with the relationships, which were of course mysterious, but intense and specific enough to draw me happily into the mysteries.)
HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? Do you hate me for making you watch it? Please weigh in in the comments.