Leos Carax burst on the film scene back in 1984 with his debut feature, Boy Meets Girl, a quiet, charming work that signaled that a major talent had arrived. In the 21 years since his exquisite third film, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), Carax has turned out only a short and two features, and each has been highly anticipated by his growing fan base.
His latest feature, Holy Motors, which opened this week, is an incredibly ambitious yet playful work that finds his immaculately talented onscreen alter-ego, actor Denis Lavant, assuming a variety of roles as a mysterious man who tackles a number of “jobs” (each requiring a different identity) in the span of a single day.
Carax structured the film so that his protagonist can move easily from genre to genre. The only information we're given about him at the outset (which may or may not be the reality of his life) is that he's a rich man who is picked up in the morning by a chauffeur (Edith Scob) who transports him to each of his assignments. Thus, Lavant slides into a number of different personas: a pathetic homeless man, an impossibly limber motion-capture model, an urban dad with a shy teenage daughter, an old man ready to die, a hitman, a forlorn lover and, most memorably, a sewer-dwelling troglodyte who terrorizes Paris and claims as his prize a hot model (Eva Mendes).
And there I dispense with plot, as I'm sure Carax wanted to do in the creation of this picture. The list above leaves out an absolutely wonderful musical interlude where, apropos of nothing, Lavant leads a motley (but killer) accordion band through what looks to be an abandoned church. Throughout the picture, Carax connects with a number of movie genres, from Jacques Demy-like romance to Ishiro Honda-inspired city-trashing, having fun all the way. The main virtue of Holy Motors is its wild unpredictability.
Although this is his first feature shot on digital, Carax puts his love of film at the forefront, starting the proceedings with a Lavant-less prologue in which he, Leos, makes up and wanders in his pajamas into a movie palace filled with immobile, seemingly sleeping, patrons. When a filmmaker acknowledges at the outset that the film we're watching is his dream, absolutely anything is possible.
Like the anthology features made in recent years by Wong Kar-Wai, Jim Jarmusch, and Takeshi Kitano, the film plays at first like an “interim” work, which has fortunately spawned some bravura set-pieces that rank with the best of Carax's work. The vignettes each have their virtues, with the troglodyte segment (spun out of Carax's contribution to the anthology feature Tokyo!) being the most feverishly weird and entertaining, and the sequence in which Lavant plays a dying old man feeling the hardest to wade through – especially since its dour tone is shortly followed by two broadly comic moments.
As noted above, the film provides a tour-de force showcase for Lavant. We see him applying and removing makeup in the limo, but once he appears in each vignette, he is fully transformed and demonstrates that he’s a character actor extraordinaire (who can also be a very unconventional leading man). There is literally nothing out of the range of his small frame and visage.
As a further homage to the glories of cinema past, the supporting cast has some very familiar faces. Besides Eva Mendes (whose job as “Beauty” is to simply attract Lavant’s Beast), Carax has scored a cameo by the legendary Michel Piccoli, who costarred in his terrific evocation of silent cinema and the French New Wave, Mauvais Sang (1986). Piccoli is one of the few actors still alive (besides, obviously, Moreau and Leaud) who carries with him a wealth of French cinematic references – from Le Mepris to Belle du Jour and on and on.
Also offering cinematic echoes of her own is the actress playing the dutiful chauffeur. Edith Scob dons a white mask in one of the film’s final scenes, evoking her unforgettable starring role in George Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without a Face (1960). On a lesser level, Kylie Minogue appears in the segment intended to evoke Demy, bringing with her a pop stardom that echoes that of the ye-ye girls and “dollybird” singers who appeared in Sixties comedies and pop fantasies.
What some sour souls may see as the deficits in Holy Motors — its jumps in tone, its expectation that the viewer will follow along from scene to scene, its very odd payoff(s) — makes it one of the most adventurous films to appear in some time (from a director not named von Trier) and a very rewarding head trip.
I’ve been talking about Carax’s work on the Funhouse TV show for several years now. The first episode I did about him was back in 1995. Foremost among the items shown at that time were his musical moments, beginning with this lovely visualization of a number by the “Anthony Newley-era” David Bowie from Boy Meets Girl (1984):
Carax does indeed do miraculous work visualizing pop music (yet has never made a music-video yet, bless ’im). One his best-ever moments is this mega-kinetic celebration of the joy of love, enacted by Lavant in Mauvais Sang (1986):
The film that “broke” Carax in France, but has since become a beloved cult film (and is thus far his masterwork) is the very unique love story Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), aka “Lovers on the Bridge” on American DVD. Here is the trailer (and, yes, that is Juliette Binoche waterskiing on the Seine):
Pola X (1999) was his return to filmmaking after the difficulties caused by Les Amants. It’s the most difficult of his five features (the whole film is available in French here) and contains several moments that are intended to be highly jarring, like this dream sequence:
I interviewed Carax in conjunction with opening of Pola X in 2000. Here is a slice of him meditating on his inability to get films made:
Here is the trailer for Holy Motors:
And I can’t resist adding the German trailer, which is structured around the band-in-church musical sequence: