'Holy Motors' takes viewers on a limo ride

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

If you're willing to let a movie wash over you and work at what it might mean, you'll love “Holy Motors,” Leos Carax's surreal ode to … identity? Movies? Performance? Identity and performance in movies, or movies and performance in identity, or some other combination that will come to mind upon further viewings?

On the other hand, if you think that movies that require you to do a fair amount of heavy lifting, to connect dots and still come up with something somewhat nebulous (though ultimately satisfying) are pompous nonsense, then you'll want to rip this film off the spool and stomp it into a pile of celluloid powder. (If they still use celluloid these days. But you get the point.)

Seriously, what a nutty, beautiful movie, one whose audacity will leave you exasperated and thrilled, but not in equal measure. The thrills win the day, with an amazing performance by Denis Lavant in several roles carrying the film.

Monsieur Oscar (Lavant), a well-dressed businessman, begins his day by leaving his beautiful home in some sort of heavily guarded compound in Paris, saying goodbye to his kids as he heads to work. He's picked up by his chauffeur (Edith Scob, who starred in the classic 1960 horror film “Eyes Without a Face,” leading to one of the all-time great call-back images in this movie).

It's an odd limo. It has a dressing-room mirror and makeup. By the time he steps out of the car for his first “appointment,” Oscar has transformed himself into a hunched-over old lady who begs on the streets. This goes on for a while, and then it's back into the limo to prepare for another appointment, a motion-capture filming session that ranges from exercise to simulated sex. Other appointments include an assassination in which Oscar is both killer and victim, a kidnapping of a supermodel (Eva Mendez) by a creature Oscar is playing, a musical number sung by Kylie Minogue (!) and more.

At this point, a critic would traditionally tell you what it all means. I'd love to, once I figure it all out. Again, identity and performance are clearly elements of what Carax has going on here. Probably. Think of it as an educated guess. The stories don't fit together in any traditional sense, at least not that I could discern. This has the effect of Oscar's journey having no mooring, no real grounding. It floats, which is both uncomfortable and kind of thrilling in its sense of freedom. Taken as a whole, the stories form something that feels complete, like a spacier version of David Cronenberg's “Cosmopolis.”

Or maybe it's a pretentious bunch of nonsense. More than with most movies, with “Holy Motors” it will be up to you to decide for yourself.

Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic for The Arizona Republic.

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