It's a two-hour French surrealist film. (Okay, nearly two hours.) It's about a man called Oscar (Denis Lavant) who goes around in an insanely long car that's also his dressing room, from which he emerges to play dramatic scenes. It's not clear who this is for. God? Us, watching the film? These scenes will have their own internal logic, but then before long we'll be watching another one that has nothing to do with the last one. It's an actor at work.
It's weird, obviously, but it's French intellectual weird. You're always aware that it's doing it deliberately. It's a chin-stroking exercise. There's plenty of cinema out there that's just as surreal, but in a less calculated way that comes from being batshit crazy. (Czechoslovakia, Japan, Korea, you name it.) This film, though, is drawing attention to its own artifice and telling you that there's no point in even trying to analyse it on any level except symbolism, metaphor and theme, although admittedly it'll also toy with your instincts to work out what's real. Some scenes are obviously just another acting job. Sometimes they contain elements that appear to become reality, e.g. bloody violence. Sometimes they'll have crossed over into unscripted meetings... but then suddenly a dramatic scene will turn into a musical number and the artifice is back.
I think it avoids pretentiousness, though. It's not empty posing. It's exploring the nature of dramatic performance, particularly in cinema. More than one segment gets judgemental about lies. (What is truth in this context? Nonetheless it's fair to draw a distinction between fibbing and acting out a script.) We see silent cinema, a CGI motion capture body suit and scenes with Hammer horror monster music. That American magazine photographer might be speaking for either the audience or for movie producers. "It's so weird!" There's a cool accordion march in a church.
I think it's real inside the car, though. Oscar puts on his make-up and at one point even discusses his art. "Some don't believe in what they're watching any more." "I miss the cameras." They used to be huge, you see, but these days they've shrunk. "Now you can't see them at all."
Reactions will vary to the scenes themselves. Obviously they're not real. Even when they are, they're still not. Some viewers have managed to find individual sequences moving, dramatic, frightening, etc. Others found those moments almost funny, because the film's so deadpan and because you always know he's just an actor doing a job. Personally I was watching them as thought experiments that explored the film's theme, but were functionally empty by all normal yardsticks of drama. That's fine, though. It's good to go in new directions sometimes.
It's different, at least. It's also ingenious, with some nifty ideas amid the melange. Oscar is obviously a significant name in the context of the movies, incidentally. It has Kylie Minogue, speaking very good French. It has a subterranean goblin man who eats hair, flowers and banknotes and dresses Eva Mendes in a burka before the two of them turn into a painting. Did I like it? After a fashion, yes, although I couldn't recommend it to 95% of the people I know. I think it succeeds in its goals. I think you could have an interesting discussion about it afterwards, which was clearly the point. I'd be interested in seeing what my dad thought of it.