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Léos Carax, Holy Motors, 2012, 35 mm, color, 116 minutes. Monsieur Oscar and Eva Grace (Denis Lavant and Kylie Minogue).

IN CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG, the Canadian director said that his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) was, for him, primarily about Christopher Walken’s face. Similarly, Holy Motors (2012), French writer-director Léos Carax’s bold return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade, is largely a multivalent study of Denis Lavant’s body. It is also a brilliantly metatextual, multigenre meditation on what Jean Baudrillard called “the disappearance of the real” in the face of the encroaching digitization of everything, as well as a fictional realization of Erving Goffman’s 1959 classic of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Clever but affecting, endlessly referential (to cinema history, old Paris, itself) without feeling hollow and overintellectualized, Holy Motors was an upstart entry at this year’s Cannes festival. There it won the Prix de la Jeunesse (the Youth Prize—an award decided by a small group of cineasts aged eighteen to twenty-five), though the film was notably snubbed by the official jury. Managing to be visually sumptuous, engagingly kinetic, and thumpingly entertaining while flouting most laws of narrative (lacking even the internal “consistency” of dream logic), it is also something of a throwdown to contemporary (particularly American) filmmakers to get off their script-doctored, focus-grouped asses and use their imaginations.

Beginning with a man (Carax) waking up in a hotel room and finding a secret door into a grand, old-fashioned movie house, where a film plays to a motionless, seemingly dead audience, Holy Motors quickly shifts its focus to Lavant, who will play nine different characters in widely divergent contexts over the course of the story, which takes place in one day. The rough-hewn, physically versatile actor, who has starred in most of Carax’s movies, does not merely play nine different roles in films-within-a-film; he is playing a character who plays nine different roles for nine different “appointments” at various Parisian locations, driven (to the end of the night) by a female chauffeur named Céline, portrayed by Edith Scob, best known as the masked young woman in Georges Franju’s supremely creepy Eyes Without a Face (1960). For those who still rue the postmodern turn, Holy Motors may already sound annoying; you’ll have to trust me that it isn’t.

Because Lavant first appears as a paranoid businessman being driven from his suburban mansion into the city, where he emerges to panhandle after disguising himself as an old gypsy woman, viewers may initially expect a hackneyed class-inversion narrative, a kind of arty Trading Places (1983). Several “appointments” later, however, we realize we’re on uncharted ground, both behind the scenes (in the limo) and in the scenes (at the “appointments”) as Lavant moves from role to role, an acting telegram making his daily rounds. The first three scenarios do not require other people to know the characters Lavant impersonates, so the impression is of a jaded rich man getting his kicks by assuming other identities and putting himself in odd situations. As the film progresses, though, Lavant interacts with people who behave as if they recognize and accept him as their father, their ex-lover, etc. There are intimations, in the mode of Philip K. Dick, that he may not be the only person honoring “appointments” all day in various guises, that indeed, maybe we all are.

At another level, Holy Motors is a film about film. Beyond the presence of Scob (who—spoiler alert—dons the mask from her signature role at one point), the movie also includes a cameo from veteran French star Michel Piccoli and a musical sequence featuring Kylie Minogue in Jean Seberg’s Breathless haircut; it reprises an earlier Lavant character from Carax’s Merde, a segment of the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!; and it implicitly links Lavant’s peripatetic, Buster Keaton–like physicality to Étienne-Jules Marey’s late-nineteenth-century chronophotographs of atheletes, which are intercut throughout the film, thereby encompassing the prehistory of cinema. Each “appointment” references a different genre—comedy, noir, melodrama, romance, musical, horror, science fiction, fantasy, magic realism—in a manner at once nostalgic and refreshing. The overarching implication is that as non-video-game-based movies and celluloid itself become obsolete, so too do all things physical—machines, animals, people. From the title on down, the film expresses Carax’s melancholy reverence for the engines—mechanical, emotional, narrative—that drive us from one place to another, to addresses that don’t begin with “www.”

Holy Motors opens Wednesday, October 17 at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York.