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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Man of a Dozen Faces
by Donald Levit

Cannes and now American-première New York Film Festival Holy Motors is impossible to categorize beyond wild black humor. Memory and past-present; ruthless capitalism, spewing factories, obsolescence; beauty and beast, lust, love and love lost; ageing towards death; ninjas, masks, identities, rôles, fashion photography, the City of Light and ugly modern architecture. Its weakest link a late musical, it is noir, sci-fi, and horror take-off.

It is about actors and movies: Eadweard Muybridge’s 1870s shutter-release nude movement studies; Chaney and Rains, Chaplin, Keaton and Tati; an in-joke correspondence with Les yeux sans visage/Eyes Without a Face/The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and with director-writer Léos Carax’s real name and his Tokyo! trilogy contribution Merde; the Caped Crusader; and more. Indeed, the close on two hours opens with a man in pj’s (Carax) who awakens beside a dog, or dreams he does, unlocks a forest door, and enters a theater projecting a movie to a silent, unmoving, maybe asleep, audience except for one child in the aisle.

The film he presumably sees is about a Monsieur Oscar, a protean Denis Lavant expanding his Merde performance as different men named Alex (Carax was born Alex Oscar Dupont). Leaving his waving children at a gated modern Hulot house lined with luxury cars, and some dozen hours later entering an equally sterile row house with a surprise family, the natty industrialist settles into a white stretch limosine.

His elegant, cool, concerned, white-suited chauffeur is Céline, played by Édith Scob, who wore a Phantom of the Opera mask as the disfigured Eyes Without a Face daughter and here dons one again to return to personal life at the end. She supplies her passenger black folders each outlining a separate identity assignment for him. Though he is bone-weary by long day’s end, only once is his dedication questioned, when a birthmarked Michel Piccoli suggests waning enthusiasm noticed by unnamed higher-ups who may be gangsters, government, military, financiers, or nothing.

Unlike Eric Packer’s technogadget Cosmopolis wheels, Oscar’s base for movement through the metropolis is cluttered with armaments, costumes, wigs, face putty, prostheses and a vanity mirror.


From dusk till dark, he follows the tasks laid out for him, running too late to grab the food that Céline would press on him. First he becomes a bag lady crone, cadging coins on a Seine bridge. Soon, clad in black ninja outfit with white motion-capture sensors, he climbs industrial ladders to a darkened production loft where a statuesque woman (Zlata) in sensored red vinyl enacts acrobatic martial-arts and then copulation movements with him as digital technology transforms them into tailed reptilian creatures.

Following a return to the car, he is a Neanderthal type that traverses sewers to emerge in a cemetery where funeral slabs read “VisitezMonSite.www” and, from a fashion photo shoot (Geoffrey Carey as T. Bone), carries off statuesque goddess-attired model Kay M. (Eva Mendes) to an underground lair where he spouts gibberish, eats flowers, disrobes, and falls asleep on her lap.

Entr’actes reveal his peeling and brushing off false faces and applying new ones. Other nameless incarnations include a father angry with daughter Angèle’s (Jeanne Disson) party-wallflower behavior and threatening her with punishment; or his warehouse killing of Theo for an accidental murder, only to be stabbed by his apparently dead target as he is being made up to resemble Oscar; or a The Portrait of a Lady deathbed scene where, as elderly Mr. Vogan, Oscar dies in bed beside a dog and is mourned by Léa who is really Elise (Elise Lhomeau) and not really his heiress niece made unhappy by inherited wealth.

For that matter, he does not really die, either, but in pajamas and robe wanders out and into one of the two possibly non-assigned encounters. By chance he spots Jean Seberg-ish lost love Jeanne (Kylie Minogue) in another limo. She is also disguised, as airline hostess Eva Grace, has only a free half-hour in which to revisit the abandoned Samaritain department story where twenty years ago he bought her bras and where she now sings to him old-style romantic “Who Were We?” (by Carax and Neil Hannon).

So many genres, moods, shifts, skits and bits make up Holy Motors that inevitably some misfire, though most sparkle. Whether it means everything, or nothing, is anyone’s guess, but, as with also Gallic Delicatessen, it offers lots of blatantly funny seriousness to satisfy all but the most grumpy.

(Released by Indomina Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)

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