This Isn't Your Life: On the Brilliant, Trippy Holy MotorsS

We like to believe that we're the masters of our own destinies, that our lives are ours to do with as we wish. But in reality, that's not true. We behave differently around our bosses than we do around our friends. Even as grown-ups, we still revert to childish tendencies when we're around our parents. Sometimes we think we're still the young, energetic, freewheeling people we were in college, but suddenly we're married with kids and responsibilities. Outside forces dictate. Our lives may be our own, but that doesn't mean we control them completely. Sometimes we're just along for the ride.

Among all the other great things about Holy Motors—the often brilliant, slightly mad new film from French writer-director Léos Carax that opens tomorrow—it's a movie that gets to the heart of this dilemma. It tells the story of a man named Monsieur Oscar (longtime Carax collaborator Denis Lavant), who has a most unusual job. He wakes up, puts on a suit, and is picked up in a limo. The driver (Édith Scob) hands him his daily docket of "appointments." It's never made clear exactly who Oscar works for or who hires him, but he spends the day and evening fulfilling these appointments, which requires him to don different wardrobes (complete with wigs and makeup) and play different roles. Sometimes he's an assassin, sometimes he's a father having a hard conversation with his daughter, and sometimes he's a hideous freak dragging away a beautiful model played by Eva Mendes.

Because of its episodic, mysterious nature, Holy Motors can be powerfully frustrating if you're trying to assign meaning to its poetic, ambiguous images. (The film's first scene, a seeming non sequitur that consists of a confused Carax opening a door and finding himself in the back of a movie theater with a packed audience waiting for the show to start, could be interpreted as an anxiety about making art or simply a playful way to kick-start a movie.) But the more you give yourself to the experience of Holy Motors, the easier it is to love the hell out of its cheeky audacity—its ability to be both extremely playful and profoundly bittersweet.

Like a lot of David Lynch's films, Holy Motors is packed with a dream logic that's powerfully emotional even if not all the small details make sense. Why exactly is Oscar dressing up as a motion-capture artist in a bodysuit with all the colored balls for one job and then doing a drive-by killing of a man who looks just like him in another? We're never told. The images come from a primal, intuitive place, where literal implications don't matter. As a result, Holy Motors feels somewhat incomplete, but in the best way possible—the audience must connect the dots.

Lavant's performance is impressive on a technical level simply because he's playing so many different characters in the same film. (The actors in Cloud Atlas have nothing on him.) Except for his gargoyle character, who was previously featured in Carax's contribution to the Tokyo! omnibus film, these are all new roles for him, and each character is given its own distinct personality and shading. But the real feat is how Lavant connects them by suggesting that Oscar has grown tired of the many hats, literally, he has to wear for his job. Though he's onscreen almost the entire time, Oscar himself is someone we never quite get to know in this film, and yet we feel that longing—that need to no longer be an empty shell—pouring out of him.

This isn't the first time this year that we've seen a role somewhat like this: The little-seen Alps (from the same Greek filmmaker, Yorgos Lanthimos, who previously came up with Dogtooth) was about a group of people who are hired by the grieving to fill in for their dead loved ones. Oscar's appointments cover a wide gamut—he might be a lonely street beggar or an ex-lover—and although the people around him in each role don't question him, it's never clear if he's taking the place of the original character or if he's merely serving a specific role for his clients.

At first, I found myself struggling with not knowing the answer to that question, but as Holy Motors rolls along—and the more apparent Oscar's disillusionment seemed—the more I saw his job as a metaphor for all our lives. Like Oscar, we're all playing roles throughout the day—friend, sibling, spouse, child—and sometimes those "appointments" require us to deny our own needs and desires to make others happy. In some ways, it's a selfless service that Oscar provides, but as we see through his sad eyes, there's also an emotional toll to be paid, a limiting of ourselves that comes when we're pulled in so many directions. You could look at all this as a commentary on acting—to do the job properly, you have to become another person, never revealing the real "you" to the world—and there's no question that Holy Motors invites the viewer to interpret much of what happens through the lens of filmmaking. (If you're familiar with Scob's most famous onscreen role, you'll be rewarded with a pretty obvious reference to it near the end.)

But I found myself wanting to see it from a more universal perspective. Ultimately, Oscar's dilemma is ours: We go off into the world excited to show off our talents and passion, but somehow we lose parts of ourselves along the way, becoming someone we never thought we'd be. The inventiveness and exuberance of Holy Motors makes it immensely enjoyable—I haven't even mentioned the Kylie Minogue musical sequence—and yet there's something truly, weirdly heartbreaking at this film's core. Like Oscar, we all sometimes ask ourselves, well, how did I get here?

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.