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Denis Lavant is a shape-shifting wonder in 'Holy Motors' ★★★ 1/2

"Holy Motors," an exuberant jape as well as a beautiful ode to the movies, to play-acting and to Paris, comes from the French writer-director Leos Carax, re-teaming here with actor Denis Lavant. Lavant got robbed at the Cannes Film Festival this year, losing the best actor award to Mads Mikkelsen ("The Hunt"). Now you can find out why I think this is so.

An extraordinary chameleon, Lavant portrays 11 different characters in "Holy Motors," all springing from the main character, Monsieur Oscar, a man of mysterious profession.

He begins his workday by leaving his home and family and slipping into the back seat of a stretch limo driven by Celine (Edith Scob, bringing a wealth of screen history to every glance in the rearview mirror). There are places to go, transformations to be made.

In one sequence Monsieur Oscar becomes a ratty gnome from the sewers (a character, Monsieur Merde, whom Carax has deployed in previous works). This is the most energized and headlong of the sub-characters on view, a Tasmanian devil of a man who busts up a fashion shoot in a cemetery, kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and scurries away with her to his underground lair.

Elsewhere, Monsieur Oscar changes clothes to transform into a beggar woman, or — in one showy sequence — a film actor wearing a full-body stocking dotted with motion-capture sensors. His movements are further transformed, by digital filmmaking technology, into a special-effects scene of a man-lizard engaged in coitus with another lizard. Everything is something else in "Holy Motors," or rather: No one's identity is fixed.

It's a peculiar experience but not a "difficult" one. Carax lays out his conceit, the parade of role-playing and shape-shifting, carefully, methodically. As such, if his film begins with Carax himself stepping through a door and finding himself, in pajamas, in a crowded movie theater, it seems like a natural occurrence. If Australian singer Kylie Minogue shows up for a musical number, or if Michel Piccoli joins the nocturnal parade for a chat in the back of the limo relating to the nature of performing for the cameras — cameras, Oscar notes, that are shrinking in size in the digital era, and may well be shrinking the performers' efforts too — again, anything goes and nothing really seems out of place. The movie, Carax's first full-length effort since "Pola X" in 1999, wonders what it means to be alive and constantly responding to an unseen casting director's desires.

Lavant is splendid in the film, and he's essentially the entire film — and yet, "Holy Motors" is somewhat more than a contraption built for a fearless performer. If anything, I found its progression to be a little tidy. But I doubt you'll find a more interesting handful, headful and eyeful this year. I love what Carax says about his protean lead actor's contributions. Blithely ignoring the time-space continuum, the director says: "If Denis had said no, I would have offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin."

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Holy Motors' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
(violence, sex, nudity, language)
Running time: 1:55; in French and English with English subtitles.
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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