We'd Like to Help the Academy is our Oscar column highlighting the outliers that should be nominated (but probably won't be).
In February of this year, the Academy gave their Best Actor award to a Frenchman whose film was both a celebration of cinema and a lamentation if its bygone days (Jean Dujardin in The Artist). They'd do well to repeat that feat again, albeit with an entirely different performance: Denis Lavant in Holy Motors. An absolutely chameleonic disappearance into a character who has several different facets in and of himself -- Lavant is listed 11 different times in the end credits, just to give you an idea -- the actor's turn as the enigmatic Monsieur Oscar is both hilarious and disturbing, often within the same scene.
The film itself is Leos Carax's first feature in 13 years; watch it and you'll quickly get a sense of why it took so long to secure financing. An always bizarre, sometimes surreal tour through Paris, it follows our hero as he goes from one "appointment" to another in a stretch white limo. Sometimes he kills people, while on other occasions he merely engages in motion-capture sex. This is all as flat-out bonkers as it sounds, with Lavant serving as the main onscreen ringleader.
His seeming insanity proves infectious, however, as neither Eva Mendes nor Kylie Minogue (of all people) are spared its influence. Appearing in one segment as a troll-like creature who kidnaps the former's character from a photoshoot in Paris, he absconds with her to a sewer in which he proceeds to take off his pants. (Minogue gets off relatively easy, with her onscreen performance of "Can't Get You Out of My Head" seeming tame in comparison.)
I saw Holy Motors at a festival in Switzerland back in August and, though I was far too jetlagged to take it all in (not that being fully conscious would have been enough to fully understand what was going on in one sitting), Lavant's performance was never less than captivating. It wouldn't be right to say that he anchors the film -- it's too happily out-there for that -- but he does provide its most enthralling entry point.
The Academy goes crazy for actors losing or gaining weight, playing famous dead people, and pretending to be ugly. But it's surprisingly rare that they reward someone for being utterly absorbed into the fictional character he or she is embodying -- especially in a foreign film as decidedly un-glamorous as Holy Motors.
But, as their love affair with The Artist and Hugo clearly demonstrates, they are quite taken by movies about the power of cinema itself. Add the fact that Lavant is something of an art-house hero -- in addition to several collaborations with Carax, he's also appeared in films by Claire Denis and Harmony Korine -- who's due for some mainstream recognition and a case emerges for him as being more Oscar-friendly than it may at first seem. Plus: his character is named Monsieur Oscar. Who can resist that sort of awards-night wordplay?