Leos Carax’s return to feature length filmmaking is as audacious and thrilling a piece of cinema as one is likely to see in 2012. Straddling the theoretically contradictory missives of emotional and enigmatic, Holy Motors is destined to become one of the great talking points of the era.

Carax’s film is something of a major digital ode to The Actor, who here is represented  somewhat wittily and appropriately by a figure named Mr. Oscar, portrayed by Denis Lavant. We spend a day in the life of Mr. Oscar, as the man fulfils a number of “appointments”, each one a kind of abstract mission, and each correlating with a specific type of performance. Acting is a pretence. The figure involved is pretending to be something they aren’t, be it the father of fellow actor, the lover of another, or a CGI Anthropomorphic dragon with exaggerated male genitalia, and Holy Motors takes great joy in projecting this.

In spite of Carax’s claims otherwise, Holy Motors plays out like an exploration of the cinema itself. Primitive film clips punctuate the movie, while every era of the cinema is covered by Mr. Oscar’s increasingly conceptual appointments. But alas, Carax himself, who wrote and directed the picture has declared that the film is not a work of homage or reference, and is instead a film concerned primarily with the life and death of a person. It’s certainly true that we see Mr. Oscar pass through the key moments of life, with parenthood, death and even birth (via digital connection) each explored and represented, while a post-film coda seems to imply the end of a story (or life). And yet it remains impossible not to read the film as some kind of exploration of the cinema itself: for one thing Carax himself appears on screen in the films prologue, stepping out in to an actual movie house, while a section of the film takes place with the famous sign of the La Samaritaine department store standing substitute for the Hollywood sign. 

Elsewhere we see buildings that recall Tativille, the sleek modernist architecture lacking only a Monsieur Hulot, Kylie Minogue sporting a Jean Seberg Breathless hair-style, and a heavily stylised mirror that recalls the kind of prop that one would ordinarily associate with Marcel Carné’ Les enfants du paradis, as does the halfway point interval, which sees Oscar bound through the empty corridors of a vast building playing the accordion. Lavant’s entire performance (as does his career) reminds of a earlier type of performer. A very physical performer, Lavant portrayed Charlie Chaplin in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, with the comparisons between that type of performance and this one fitting. It follows in a great French tradition of a very physically driven acting (Michel Simon, Sacha Guitry) and very much attaches the cinema to the theatre, which is the medium with which one might most closely associate this style of performance. 

And yet in spite of the theatricality of it all, Holy Motors somehow remains completely and wholly cinematic. No better is the argument for the immersivity of cinema made than in the soon-to-be-iconic sequence set in a motion capture unit. As Mr. Oscar’s every movement is captured we face not the end result of the technology, but the method. As he steps on a treadmill designed to mimic a virtual landscape we see not an alien world or some dramatic past, but the treadmill. The glamour of the movies is stripped away to reveal a situation that is actually far more interesting than the identikit blockbuster that Carax is critiquing, and it’s hugely affecting.

In presenting Holy Motors in the manner with which he has chosen to do so, Leos Carax has created a meditation on the cinema of one that can sit comfortably alongside the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001; A Space Odyssey, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. Compelling, challenging and refreshingly lacking in pretence, Holy Motors is a remarkable experience.