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Holy Motors

Denis Lavant delivers 11 of the best performances of the year.

DIRECTED BY LEOS CARAX

The key to Leos Carax’s wickedly smart and genial Holy Motors might be a throwaway moment at the start of its most sobering scene. Frequent Carax collaborator Denis Lavant plays a depressed single father collecting his sullen daughter from a party. As he pulls up to the apartment, he’s greeted by the sounds of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” pulsing from the window, an odd choice for a Parisian teen dance party, but a fitting one for the film, which costars Minogue as a seasoned performer nostalgic for the old parts she’s played.

Though it scans as a joke, that sly callback to Minogue’s career (despite the fact that she isn’t, ostensibly, playing herself) is central to Carax’s project—a warm tribute to actors and to the real moments of tenderness couched in every unreal performance they pull off. Lavant, it should be explained, isn’t playing the father so much as a man (identified only as Monsieur Oscar) who’s tasked with playing him. Oscar is something like a hybrid between a professional actor and a secret agent: based in a limo that roams the streets of Paris at night, he gets his assignments in a manilla envelope, then drives off to play whatever small-time crook, banker, or uncouth imp the situation demands. As the Minogue reference suggests, though, on some level Lavant is also playing himself, an actor of great range in a particular body that’s carried along with him to every performance, rather like the titular car.

Holy Motors will be most enjoyable to viewers who have a passing familiarity with Lavant’s prior work, particularly his lithe, full-bodied performances in Carax’s Mauvais sang and Claire Denis’ Beau travail. But the manic energy of the lighter segments and the deep melancholy of Oscar’s last few assignments, which bring him ever closer to his natural persona (or so we think), can be appreciated by anyone who’s ever marvelled at the sheer amount of roles they’ve inhabited over the years—which is to say, anyone.

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