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Denis Lavant gives an extraordinary shape-shifting performance in 'Holy Motors'

Lavant wows as a man who impersonates 11 different people in the course of a day.

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Eva Mendes stars in 'Holy Motors.'

Gus Ruelas/Reuters

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The anarchic French director Leos Carax last directed a film 13 years ago, “Pola X,” which in a roundabout way derived from Herman Melville’s novel “Pierre.” I suspect his new film, “Holy Motors,” is also tinged with Melville – in this case his novel “The Confidence-Man.”

“Holy Motors” is about Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant, in an extraordinary, shape-shifty performance), who impersonates 11 different personas in the course of the same day. His limo driver (Edith Scob) chauffeurs him on a series of “appointments” in which he dresses up as an old beggar woman, a madman in a street market, an assassin, and so on. The limo is  equipped with a full dressing room of costumes and props and his charades, which range from roisterous to supremely creepy, last far into the night.

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This is the kind of it-can-mean-whatever-you-want-it-to-mean art film that I usually run from, but Carax is such a prodigiously gifted mesmerist that, if you give way, you’re likely to be enfolded in the film’s phantasmagoria. It’s a movie about, among things, movies, but it expresses a wondrousness and dread that make it far more than a cinéaste’s exercise. It’s also much better than that other back-of-the-limo movie this year, David Cronenberg’s stultifying “Cosmopolis.” Grade: B+ (Unrated.)