Leos Carax, Holy Motors, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Edith Scob.

“I DON’T KNOW if there is a French translation for bonkers . . . ,” a British reporter opened her question to Leos Carax at today’s press conference for Holy Motors, which screened last night for the press to thunderous applause. (I can’t recall a film ever being received so rapturously at Cannes.) Part of this enthusiasm may have been simple recognition of the fact that the auteur had finally completed a film after a long hiatus: Holy Motors is Carax’s first feature since 1999’s Pola X (he is best known for his 1991 film maudit, The Lovers on the Bridge). But it was also a display of gratitude for being so thoroughly transported by such an intensely personal, formally virtuosic work.

Operating on the logic of dreams and emotions, Holy Motors—or rather, the experience of watching it—is nearly impossible to summarize. Carax himself, clad in pajamas, appears in the film’s opening scenes, walking through a corridor that leads to a theater. That prologue segues to Denis Lavant—the director’s longtime collaborator—playing a man named Oscar who inhabits eleven different characters (“In my contract, there were ten,” the sinewy, simian actor noted at the press conference), including an assassin, a performer who rehearses a motion-capture sex scene, and a feral leprechaun who is cradled while naked (and with an erection) in the lap of Eva Mendes. Oscar is driven from appointment to appointment in Paris in a white-stretch limo by the soignée Celine (Edith Scob); not on his itinerary is an unplanned reunion on the roof of the abandoned Samaritaine department store with a woman played by Kylie Minogue. When the pop goddess sings “Who Were We?,” a number cowritten by Carax, Holy Motors soars, the song’s melancholy and remorse paradoxically transformed into uplift. (“I stripped myself of being Kylie [. . .] to pretty much be a blank canvas for Leos,” Minogue said—a strategy that worked magnificently.) Oscar returns to his family—two bonobo monkeys—and parked limousines converse with one another.

Literal-minded journalists demanded to know what it all “meant,” but Carax refused, for the most part, to humor them. To the reporter who asked “what the scene with Eva Mendes was about,” he replied, “How would I know?” The director proferred a few evocative definitions, describing cinema as “a beautiful island with a cemetery” and the general moviegoing public as “a bunch of people who will be dead soon.” Later, Carax did provide something of a log line: “This is a film about a man and the experience of being alive”—a perfect summation of an unclassifiable, expansive, breathtaking movie.

Melissa Anderson