Denis Lavant, French film's most unusual-looking actor you can't stop looking at, plays a highly specific sort of actor in this beautifully weird fantasy about life, death and love from Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X). Lavant's "Monsieur Oscar" performs multiple roles over the course of a single day for cameras nobody ever sees (at one point he complains that the devices have gotten so small that he doesn't feel like his actions are really taking place). He's driven from point to point all over Paris in a white limousine -- one that serves as a dressing room for his next costume change -- by his elegant chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob, from the 1960 horror classic Eyes Without a Face).
He transforms himself into a hunched old woman begging in the street ("I'm so old I'm afraid I'll never die," he says before leaving the scene). Later, he's a repulsively awesome, gibberish-spewing sewer-dweller named "Monsieur Merde" -- originally seen in Carax's contribution to the anthology film Tokyo! -- who steals model Eva Mendez away from a photo shoot, dresses her in a makeshift burqa, strips naked and falls asleep on her lap with a big fake erection. At later appointments he's a sad father picking up his sullen daughter from a party, a dying old man who breaks character to talk to the actress playing his niece, an assassin out to kill his own identical twin, a happily married husband whose wife and child are apes, a member of an accordion-playing flash mob and, in the film's most moving detour, himself, in a chance encounter with a former lover played by Kylie Minogue, who in turn sings him a melancholy ballad. This guy is really busy.
So's the director. His first film in 13 years -- his least ferocious, most humane -- is its own kind of motor, one that runs on an endlessly inventive supply of confounding strangeness and unanswerable questions. (The Minogue-obsessed friend I took to the press screening said, "I have no idea what I just watched... but Kylie was great.") And it's a film about films as in love with the art form as Martin Scorsese's Hugo, bookending the action with a vintage silent reel of a solitary man performing a series of exercises, referencing cinema through the decades with visual and sonic cues like Minogue's Jean Seberg pixie-cut wig, Godzilla theme music and Scob's final, mysterious actions. And in a wildly hypnotic sequence, the actor and an unnamed woman transform entirely into animated performance-capture-based creatures. Their athletic, contortionist choreography becomes freaky monster sex-dancing before your eyes and it'll make you wish Andy Serkis would get a whole lot bolder with his career choices.
With emotional dots connected by a kind of invisible cobweb of mortality anxiety, Sparks songs and sadness, characters near death explain that the "sensation of life" lies in remaining behind while others pass away, even as the tombstones in the cemetery are engraved with website URLs. In as representational a moment as any, Lavant scolds his timid scene partner daughter, announcing that because she didn't dance at a party, because she hid in the bathroom afraid of her peers and then lied to him about it, that "your punishment is to be you... you have to live with yourself."
And in the end you still don't know who Monsieur Oscar is acting for or why. Then the limousines start talking to each other, complaining like human beings. Not metaphorically. They actually start talking. Which must mean that both he and the cars are acting for me. All for me. Why not? I'm pretty sure that's it.