Prodigal cinematic iconoclast Leos Carax sets a new bar for filmmaking
By Aurelie Godet
In the first scene of Holy Motors, a man, played by its writer- director, wakes up in bed. Dressed in his pyjamas, he shuffles across the room, the wallpaper of which depicts a stunning forest background. Activating a secret door in the wall, he finds himself on the balcony of a cinema, where he takes a seat amongst the public. This surreal opening sets the tone for what he is about to unleash and should be viewed in a literal context: Leos Carax, the enfant terrible of French cinema, is returning to the world of film after a lengthy absence.
Carax gained cult status at a young age with Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986), both starring theatre actor Denis Lavant and initiating a life-long partnership between the shy filmmaker and his onscreen alter ego. Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) highlighted Carax’s taste for tales of love at once tender and violent. His focus on outcasts and enthusiastic collage of visually striking scenes had critics associate him with the style-conscious ‘cinema du look’, as epitomised by the work of Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, 1981) and Luc Besson (Subway, 1985). But it eventually became clear that Carax, whose work is thoughtful and often haunted by death, was forging a path of his own.
Les amants is a memorable spectacle of dark romanticism, but it also turned out to be a sad turning point in the filmmaker’s career. After a series of misfortunes, the film’s production – and budget – went off the rails, making producers wary of this seemingly wayward talent. Carax’s next film, Pola X (1999), which observed the downward spiral of a social rebel, was difficult to finance, and a box-office failure. But after a decade-long hiatus, Carax returns with a bang.
In Holy Motors, Denis Lavant takes on no less than 11 roles. He initially appears as Monsieur Oscar, a powerful businessman entering his limousine on his way to the first meeting of a hectic day. But appearances are deceiving. We soon discover that the vehicle’s interior is set up like an actor’s dressing room. Each time his driver-secretary (the imposing Edith Scob, seen in Summer Hours (2008) and linked in the film to the pivotal role she played in Georges Franju’s 1960 classic Les Yeux sans visage) announces a new mysterious ‘job’, Oscar transforms himself into an entirely different person. He then experiences actual moments in their lives, before hopping back in the car and off to his next assignment.
Lavant is not the only one dazzling us with his unique talent for metamorphosis. In a breathtaking display of unbridled ambition, Carax explores various film genres with startling success, from the erotic ballet of a motion capture shoot to a blackly humorous gangster film and a psychological drama. Even musicals are honoured, with a majestic set piece featuring Kylie Minogue.
Always in motion, the film takes us through Paris and the history of cinema. Amongst the many film references, Carax even revisits his own body of work, in the form of Monsieur Merde, the disturbing tramp who first appeared in Carax’s contribution to the portmanteau film Tokyo (2007). In Holy Motors, American beauty Eva Mendes is the stoic victim of Merde’s rampage, representing both sexual desire and motherly comfort.
A vertiginous study of the art of living and the lies of reality, Holy Motors succeeds in being both profound and entertaining. It is a rare combination, taking audiences on its journey through crepuscular and enchanted compositions. Those willing to let themselves be carried away by it will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience of film magic. Carax, both a tormented soul and a driven explorer, reaches out to the horizon of his art, leaving the spectator with an overwhelming high.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
Holy Motors screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 28 September. For details click here