Rivaling The Master in the weirdness of its opening scene, Leos Carax's first film since Pola X (1999) begins with a long take of an audience staring out at the audience watching the movie. A snippet of a 19th-century Eadweard Muybridge zoopraxiscope motion study follows, and then a man awakens in a big bed next to a dog. He stumbles about, finds a door in a wall, and walks into a movie theater where a baby toddles toward the screen. Now you're ready to meet Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) and experience the most brilliant and exhilarating film of the year.
Who is Mr. Oscar? The Academy Award ring of his name might be a clue — not to mention that it's a partial anagram for "Leos Carax." A chameleonic blank page, he's a funnier version of the stiff financier in Cosmopolis, riding about in a limo driven by a trusted chauffeur (Edith Scob, whose performance in Franju's Eyes Without a Face is one of many allusions).
Mr. Oscar has nine appointments on his schedule, each involving a different character, scenario, and movie genre. These he prepares for with the costumes, wigs, props, and prosthetics cluttering the makeshift dressing room in the back of the car. His guises range from a billionaire banker to a gypsy crone, from a dad driving his daughter home to a Chaplin-esque satyr abducting a supermodel from a fashion shoot. Seamlessly and abruptly, his evening drive bursts into mini-movies that take place for cameras that can't be seen and for an audience that might not be there.
Lavant delivers a tour-de-force performance that's on a par with Carax's. As for the director, he's accumulated a lot of wacky material in the dozen fallow years since Pola X. He's also nurtured a sense of humor and deepened his wisdom. But at the heart of this plenitude is loss and foreboding. Speaking of his desperate craft, Mr. Oscar says he misses the old days when the machines that produced cinema, the holy motors, were larger and visible, and paradoxically made the artifice seem real. Now they have faded into the cloud of a new technology that is virtually solipsistic, a new medium so real it ceases to exist.
PETER KEOUGH » PKEOUGH[a]PHX.COM