From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man. He seems to be playing roles, plunging headlong into each part – but there are no cameras present. Monsieur Oscar is accompanied only by Céline, the slender blonde woman behind the wheel of the vast engine that transports him through and around Paris. He's like a conscientious assassin moving from hit to hit. In pursuit of the beautiful gesture, the mysterious driving force, the women and the ghosts of past lives.

Be surprised.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL / SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: As writer-director Leos Carax said at Cannes, when a journalist suggested his film was about the history of cinema: "Every film is, I think. If you decide to live on the island called Cinema, it's a beautiful island and it has a big cemetery."

After having seen thousands of films in my life, Holy Motors surprised me.

If I may interject myself into this review, picture me tip-toeing around the margins of your computer, leery of telling you too much in support of my view that Carax's Holy Motors rates 5 out of 5 in the starry firmament.

Why am I reluctant to spell things out? Because, after having seen thousands of films in my life, Holy Motors surprised me. I could not have guessed what might happen next at countless junctures and I consider that a very good sign. Since I enjoyed being surprised, I wish for you, dear reader, to have a crack at the same strange, enthralling cinematic experience.

You might not like it or you might like only certain parts of this movie, but I doubt you'll find it overly familiar or predictible. Holy Motors is a Franco-German co-production. If smart producers in those two countries could work together to create this wacky ode to the human condition, maybe those same intrepid individuals should be drafted to rescue the Continent's sputtering currency, the Euro.

All I knew before taking my seat for the film's world premiere at Cannes in May of 2012 is that French writer-director Carax had not made a feature since Pola X (1999) and that he had directed a segment of the three-pronged omnibus Tokyo! in 2008.

I also knew that Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes figured in the cast, along with feral and fearless Denis Lavant. I did not know that protean acrobat-cum-actor Lavant plays more than one role. We accompany his character, Monsieur Oscar, on a very long day at work. What does he do? Oh, this and that. His sleekly reassuring female chauffeur (played to perfection by Edith Scob) drives him around Paris in a white stretch limousine.

Holy Motors
stretches our collective imagination as Carax delights in reminding us that anything can happen in the movies, even movies anchored in what appears to be contemporary reality. How do we present ourselves in the world at different moments?

If, as Shakespeare suggested, "all the world's a stage," the car serves as a backstage area, gliding through the streets of Paris. Masks of Comedy and Tragedy are removed from their figurative pegs each time Monsieur Oscar alights.

I was vaguely aware that Carax had had a hard time getting projects off the ground. In France – where most transgressions are forgiven or tacitly ignored if they lead to Art (Roman Polanski's travails and triumphs being one prominent example) – there still clings a strange aura of bad luck to the guy whose Lovers on the Bridge (1991) cost a lot of money, as in: more than it took in. (Michael Cimino's eternal transgression in having made Heaven's Gate has haunted his career ever since, even though he also made The Deer Hunter.)

Minogue was not Carax's initial choice for the enigmatic character she plays but when their mutual friend Claire Denis suggested they meet, they hit it off. Minogue explained at Cannes "I'm used to a different world – the pop music world. But I acted at the beginning of my career, so it's nice to get back to it. When he said there was a song in my scene, I assumed it would be pre-recorded, but he said 'No, we'll do it live.' So I was open to that."

The song has shivers-down-your-spine power and also staying power. One stanza of this ditty is worth all the bouncy pop nonsense Minogue performed for the Queen's 60th Jubilee celebration barely a week later. So there.

Because so much of what's on screen is open to interpretation, Carax was pushed and prodded by the press for clues to what it all "means." His reply: I don't make public films. I make private films. Anybody is welcome to see them."

The film gets underway with a man, played by Carax, feeling his way along the wall to his room. He finds a portal. We in the audience find out what's on the other side.

And then there's that gleaming white stretch limo. "Beasts and machines," says Carax. "Holy Motors – there's a sacred motor in all of us. I like the word 'Moteur!' [the French equivalent of "Action!" on a film shoot] but you can't say it anymore because cameras don't have motors. We say 'Power' – but I think it's a false power."

Carax also mused in a French interview that "...perhaps our real homes are, already, our computers?"

Stop looking at yours, leave your real or virtual home and give Holy Motors a spin.


Watch 'Holy Motors'

Sunday 10 October, 12:15am on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand

France, 2012
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Language: French
Director: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Jean-François Balmer, Eva Mendes, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue

Holy Motors: Cheat sheet
Lynden Barber takes a stab at the references and themes in Leos Carax's rambling masterpiece, Holy Motors, to see if it's as "balls-to-the-wall-crazy" as they say.
Holy Motors: Denis Lavant interview
The French actor reflects on his remarkable performance playing 11 characters in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.