Holy Motors, the new film by the French director Leos Carax, is the most necessary work I’ve seen this year, even if it’s born out of a melancholy skepticism that we’re entering a time when little or nothing about cinema will reach that bar. It follows Mr. Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, as he’s driven around Paris in a white stretch limo on a series of mysterious appointments, each of which involves assuming a different character and – in general terms - enacting a “scene.” Sometimes it’s possible to see these as specific make-up and acting assignments, but sometimes they seem too random and messy for that, although maybe that’s only because we don’t understand the frame of reference. He’s certainly being watched – in one conversation, he regrets how the old infrastructure has been replaced by new cameras no bigger than your head – and as it develops, the film suggests he’s part of a broader network of role-playing, but exactly how that relates to the world as we know it remains a mystery.
I found the film exhilarating, just as a moment-to-moment experience, if nothing else. Some of Oscar’s assignments generate sequences of staggering sensuous beauty – Eva Mendes’ appearance as a kidnapped fashion model lasts just ten minutes, and she barely gets to open her mouth, but it’s what I’ll always remember her for. Elsewhere in the film, a character positions herself on the edge of a department store roof, perhaps intending to jump, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of physical perilousness, of the creaking of the big letters behind her, of gravity, of the nighttime activity below. Throughout, Carax ventilates the film with strange, sometimes goofy details, like Oscar eating a sushi lunch in the back of the car, or not one but two scenes involving a dog stretched out asleep on a bed.
David Denby in The New Yorker had some praise for the film, but said: “Holy Motors has no motor: the movie keeps starting over again. Carax produces the startling dislocations that Bunuel pulled off, but without the gleeful wit.” It’s a fair enough description, but the implied criticism seems beside the point: Carax just isn’t in a gleeful mood. Some background: he started making movies very young, and by the age of 30 was able to finance a big-budget love story, The Lovers on the Bridge. I remember the film fondly, but it flopped, and Carax experienced an astonishing reversal of fortune, making only one full-length film in the next twenty years, Pola X, and generating nothing in the last decade except one third of the anthology film Tokyo!, a rough-edged tale of a strange sewer-dwelling individual who causes panic when he enters the light (the character turns up again in Holy Motors, as Mendes’ kidnapper).
It almost makes you think of Orson Welles – a prodigious beginning quickly losing momentum, leaving the sense of a stalled, if not wrecked boy wonder. Of course, Carax’s debut Boy Meets Girl hardly had the impact of Citizen Kane, but it was quite awesome, a dream clawed piece by piece from the heart of darkness, conveying a compellingly honest reticence and confusion. He’s always seemed hopelessly intertwined with his films, to the point where one might fear for his identity: Juliette Binoche acted in two of his films and was also his lover; later he had a daughter with the star of Pola X, Yekaterina Golubeva, who died last year. His daughter has a role in Holy Motors, and Golubeva’s photograph appears at the end. And by the way, his real name is Alexandre Oscar Dupont – Leos Carax is an anagram of Alex Oscar. As in Mr. Oscar.
If this all potentially seems like background noise, then consider that Carax appears at the start of the new film, waking from his bed (one of those with a sleeping dog on it) and eventually unlocking – with a key that grows organically from his finger – a passage to a movie theater, in which a bunch of eerily still, or possibly even expired patrons are watching something from the dawn of cinema. Some would consider this overdone, but it leaves no doubt who’s the artist; at the same time though, it seems to express some doubt on whether a meaningful audience even exists. Carax seemed to expand on this in a recent interview: “I don't know who is the public; it's a bunch of people who will be dead very soon. I don't make public films, I make private films then invite whoever wants to come and see it.” This seems especially poignant to me given that when I saw the film in the TIFF Lightbox on its opening weekend, it didn’t seem that much of anyone wanted to come and see it.
The Death of Cinema
Holy Motors then has the death of cinema written all over it – Carax has been living with that death on several different levels. But as he stares into the jaws of apathy and defeat, he finds scintillating proof of life. In one of the most glorious sequences, and one explicitly romanticizing modern methods, Oscar and another actor perform for motion capture cameras, their skintight suits covered in jewel-like receptors; sensuously intertwining into one ever-shifting mass. Near its end, the film has Edith Scob put on the mask she last wore over fifty years ago in Eyes Without a Face, and it doesn’t just feel like a stunt, but as a mysteriously meaningful appropriation of history (one can find plenty of other echoes in the movie, of Cocteau and David Lynch for instance). At other times, Carax celebrates the classic structure of the cinemagoing experience, for example by providing his film an announced “interval,” in which Oscar is suddenly in a completely different place, leading a terrifically percussive band. Denby says it keeps starting over again, and that’s true in a way, but it’s hardly from the same place, or without taking you anywhere thrilling.
He’s hardly the only detractor though. Sight and Sound put the film on its cover (“The year’s most provocative film!”), and but ran both pro and con reviews: the first taking largely the same line I’m taking here, the second finding it “too manifestly and knowingly manufactured” and occasionally judging Carax’s sensibility to be “gratingly crass.” To me though, both points speak to the film’s power – by foregrounding the act of creation and transformation as tangibly as it does, it shows up the airless seamlessness of most of what passes. And the grating crassness – well, I see what he means, and sure, Carax isn’t Eric Rohmer, he’s a copiously flawed person who can’t help letting us in on that to some extent, which is why such an objectively outrageous creation feels so intimate and personal. If you’ve read this far, you probably have a pretty good idea of whether you could even potentially like Holy Motors. But there’s no way I could convey just how much you might like it.