“This film was born out of the rage of not being able to make other projects,” Leos Carax says of Holy Motors, an anomaly in the French director’s oeuvre as its production was relatively stress-free. Speaking at a hotel bar in New York, Carax says, “It was imagined very quickly, but I knew that the film would be shot in Paris for little money. I would not watch dailies. Those were the only things I knew.”
Holy Motors arrives on American shores within six months of its premiere at Cannes. That’s rare for Carax: His 1991 masterpiece Les Amants du Pont-Neuf killed off his hopes of pursuing a steady career by bankrupting its production company; unfortunately, it took eight years to get an American release. It would be 1999 before his next film, Pola X, got made.
Only the fifth feature Carax has directed, Holy Motors depicts a man, Oscar (Denis Lavant), who spends a day traveling around Paris in a stretch limo, dressing up in elaborate costumes and makeups, and participating in role-play scenarios whose degree of reality seems to vary wildly. Like The Artist or Hugo, the film expresses an anxiety about the technological changes affecting Carax’s chosen medium. (Needless to say, it was shot on digital video.) And like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, the image of the limousine is crucial to Holy Motors.
“Every film starts with two or three images,” he says. “Then I try to edit these images. There was an image of a theater of dead or sleeping people. There was a limousine. I saw limos in a Chinese neighborhood in Paris. People used them to get married. I found it strange, because to me, they seem very morbid. They’re like coffins. I thought they were a great vehicle for fiction because they’re quite close to virtual reality. No one can see inside. People feel protected. They can play a role. You rent them. It’s like renting a life. It’s buying an avatar. You can pretend to be famous for a day or hour.”
Holy Motors stretches quite far from conventional realism, but it almost started out as a documentary. In his second role, Oscar appears as a homeless elderly woman. Carax grew fascinated with these women in real life and wanted to make a film about them. He recalls, “I’ve always felt: ‘How could you be more alone than this? What’s left of life?’ Yet they’re still alive. There’s nothing more foreign in Paris. I thought at one point I might make a documentary about these women and me. I would encounter them on a bridge and try to relate to their story. I would go to their home country. But I didn’t make it. I’d like to make a documentary, but I fear that it would have no end. My whole life would be consumed by it. Even a fiction film is hard to end. You can going on shooting and editing a documentary forever.”
Carax has now worked with Lavant over a 28-year stretch. The actor has starred in all but one of his features. In his early films, Lavant seemed to function as Carax’s alter ego, but in Holy Motors, he plays 11 different roles. Lavant proves himself up for the challenge. Carax thinks that he’s improved even since Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. He points out, “We made a short in Tokyo [“Merde”], where I rediscovered him. I thought he had become a much greater actor. Earlier, he was more limited. Even 10 years ago, I couldn’t have made Holy Motors with him. He could have done the motion-capture scene but not the scene where he’s dying.”
Holy Motors simultaneously expresses an enthusiasm and weariness about filmmaking. The current spate of think pieces proposing the death of cinema or film culture suggests that Carax is very much in tune with his times. The film itself is filled with a joie de vivre about the possibilities of acting, with Lavant expressing an emotional repertoire from wild humor to great sadness, but Oscar seems to be suffering from burnout. Carax admits that he’s turned his back on his former cinephilia, having largely given up watching films after 1986. All the same, he doesn’t regret his youthful filmgoing. He says, “When I was 16, I felt very relieved to discover cinema. It was like an island where I could see life and death from another perspective. Every young person should be interested in that island. It’s a beautiful place. I care about cinema even though I haven’t made many films. I live on this island.”
Holy Motors is a brilliantly executed status report on the conditions of life on that island.