dir. Leos Carax, 2012, France
The bottom line: holy shit!
“For Holy Motors one of the images I had in mind was of these stretch limousines that have appeared in the last few years. I first saw them in America and now every Sunday in my neighborhood in Paris for Chinese weddings. They’re completely in tune with our times — both showy and tacky. They look good from the outside, but inside there’s the same sad feeling as in a whores’ hotel. They still touch me, though. They’re outdated, like the old futurist toys of the past. I think they mark the end of an era, the era of large, visible machines.
“These cars very soon became the heart of the film — its motor, if I may put it that way. I imagined them as long vessels carrying humans on their final journeys, their final assignments.
“The film is therefore a form of science fiction, in which humans, beasts and machines are on the verge of extinction — ‘sacred motors’ linked together by a common fate and solidarity, slaves to an increasingly virtual world. A world from which visible machines, real experiences and actions are gradually disappearing.”
– Leos Carax, 2012
Opening this Friday at the Music Box Theatre is Holy Motors, the fifth feature film by Leos Carax, the formidable yet mysterious French writer/director whose rate of production is seemingly evolving in inverse proportion to that of America’s reigning reclusive auteur, the suddenly speedy Terrence Malick; there was a two-year gap between Carax’ first and second features (1984’s Boy Meets Girl and 1986’s Mauvais Sang), a five-year wait before the third appeared (1991’s Lovers on the Bridge, still Carax’ best known work), an eight-year gap before the fourth (1999’s Pola X), and thirteen years before Holy Motors debuted at Cannes to much fanfare last May. All of these films are characterized by a unique feeling for intensely poetic images, which are inextricably tied to the intensely personal/autobiographical nature of the films themselves. But also in opposition to the way Malick’s career has evolved (i.e., into a malaise of overly-pious tedium) is the way that Carax has generally gotten better over time. The wacky Holy Motors feels both genuinely daring and razor-sharp, as if the man who made it had spent the past thirteen years on a desert island with nothing to do but think up ways to best blow viewers’ minds with a new cinematic bag of tricks. While there is probably no such thing as a “perfect movie,” nor a perfect work of art in any medium, I am nonetheless bestowing my first perfect rating of 10 on Holy Motors because such a rating only makes sense when applied to (and indeed no other rating seems possible for) a film as crazy and personal and deeply felt as this. It makes virtually everything else I saw this year look and sound stale by comparison.
Holy Motors begins on a strangely humorous note as a sleepwalker in pajamas (director Carax himself) discovers a secret door in an airport hotel room, one that he unlocks with a key growing out of the end of his finger. The door leads to a movie theater where a packed house of hypnotized patrons watch a film that features the sound of foghorns and gunshots on the soundtrack while a dog and a naked boy wander up and down the aisles around them. Yep, it’s going to be that kind of movie. Like Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, this prologue effectively announces that the film will be a parable about the cinema while simultaneously also introducing the beautiful, dreamlike logic of the anti-narrative that will follow. The anti-narrative proper concerns a character named Monsieur Oscar (Carax’ real middle name) being shuttled through the streets of Paris in a white stretch limousine whose driver will take him, for reasons unexplained, from one mysterious “appointment” to another. Each appointment requires Oscar to literally adopt a new identity (the back of the limo is outfitted with a makeshift dressing room, complete with make-up and costumes) and act out a brief scenario with other characters who may or may not be fellow performers.
Monsieur Oscar is played by the brilliant acrobatic actor Denis Lavant who has now played Carax’ alter-ego in four out of the director’s five movies (and it is probably no coincidence that Pola X, the one without Lavant, remains Carax’ weakest effort to date). The driver of the limo is a woman named Celine (Edith Scob, best known as the star of the classic 1960 horror film Eyes without a Face, which is explicitly referenced in Holy Motors‘ haunting dénouement). Celine is a loyal friend and guide to Monsieur Oscar, and the second such character to be named for Carax’ favorite French author, after “Dr. Destouches” – a reference to the birth name of Louis Ferdinand Celine – in The Lovers on the Bridge. (In the earlier film, Destouches was an eye surgeon who enabled Juliette Binoche’s visually impaired character to see.) The scenes between Celine and Oscar in Holy Motors are the connective tissue between Oscar’s appointments, which otherwise play out as a series of diverse, self-contained vignettes.
Some critics have interpreted Holy Motors as a kind of cosmic fantasy where one man hops back and forth between multiple parallel lives while others, seemingly more literal-minded, see Oscar as an actual actor being taken from one movie set to the next, which could partly (but not entirely) account for all of the role-playing. In one astonishing early sequence, Lavant performs a series of action movie stunts in a black motion-capture costume before having simulated sex with a woman wearing a similar costume in red. This partially animated scene (the characters morph into a giant cobra and dragon, respectively) segues into another where Lavant reprises his “Monsieur Merde” role from Carax’ section of the omnibus film Tokyo!; Merde is a sewer-dwelling troll-like monster who kidnaps a supermodel (a game Eva Mendes) from a fashion shoot and whisks her back to his lair where the two engage in an off-the-wall beauty and the beast-style romance. According to Carax, Merde represents collective fears about terrorism, which I suppose goes a long way towards explaining why he dresses the supermodel in a burqa. Still other scenes involve Lavant as a beggar woman, a hitman and his doppelgänger target, a high-powered businessman, an elderly man on his death-bed, the concerned father of an adolescent girl, and so on.
Carax’ fragmented approach allows him to hopscotch deliriously from one film genre to the next, including an unforgettable trip to musical romance territory where Kylie Minogue, in a Jean Seberg-style wig, performs “Who Were We?,” a swooningly gorgeous song co-written by the director himself. Carax’ scattershot narrative also allows him to radically change tones without a moment’s notice, and yet the underlying, nightmarish-poetic logic holding everything together always feels ineffably right (Carax also helps to bind the disparate elements together by peppering the achingly lovely pre-motion picture “chronophotographic” experiments of Etienne-Jules Marey throughout). The scenes in Holy Motors consequently vacillate from the hilarious to the heartbreaking to the just plain head-scratchingly bizarre but remain compulsively watchable precisely because of the overall ephemeral-mongrel structure, even if one can’t always be sure exactly what the director is up to in the particulars. Is the film a metaphor for an individual’s journey through life? Or is it a commentary on the very nature of “acting,” whether literal or figurative? While watching Holy Motors, it was impossible for me not to reflect on the many roles I find myself playing over the course of a single day. Carax is generous enough to allow one the space to think about such things. And, while some viewers are likely to feel uncomfortable by being given that much freedom, others may feel they are dreaming themselves into the movie while watching it, not unlike the Buster Keaton of Sherlock Jr. (a performer Lavant resembles in his extremely physical approach to acting).
Finally, Holy Motors also seems meant to be a damning indictment of certain trends in the modern world, as the director’s comments above, quoted in the film’s press kit, attest. Carax is clearly skeptical of, if not outright hostile to, the internet, virtual reality, and the digitization of culture. At one memorable point in the movie, tombstones in Paris’ famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery can be seen as advertising the websites of their owners, while at another Oscar laments that motion picture cameras have grown steadily smaller to the point where they are now practically invisible, a clear protest of the phenomenon of digital supplanting film. Yet, crucially, Carax never allows his more reactionary sentiments to bog the film down in bitterness. On the contrary, the genius of this movie lies in the way he seems to be using his fear of modernity as a springboard to move forward and imagine a new poetics of cinema. The director may be 51 years old but he has a perpetually youthful soul; he has vociferously decried digital filmmaking (claiming that HD cameras are “being imposed on us”) but Holy Motors also contains what are easily the most stunningly beautiful digital images of any movie I have ever seen.
In this most kaleidoscopic of films, Carax frequently intertwines his feeling for beauty with a singularly pungent melancholy and, far from coming off like the novelty it might have in lesser hands, the film ends up packing an emotional wallop. Kylie Minogue’s character, named both “Jean” and “Eva Grace” in the credits, concludes her musical number by plunging from a rooftop to her death. This may be a reference to the suicide last year of Carax’ longtime girlfriend, the Russian actress Katya Golubeva, to whom he dedicated the film. I have read that Carax threw himself into the making of this movie as a means of dealing with his grief over the incident but, as far as I know, the notoriously press shy director has yet to publicly comment on the matter. Whatever the case, Holy Motors is a film that feels as if it were made from the heart – by an artist who still believes, naïvely, romantically and infinitely movingly, in the transformative power of the elemental juxtaposition of images and sounds, regardless of what technology may be used to capture them. As a result, this is one rabbit hole I greatly look forward to plunging down again and again.