It was a timely move by the Melbourne International Film Festival to mount a retrospective of the work of the French director Leos Carax this year. His latest film, Holy Motors, was one of the talking points of this year’s Cannes, where critical reaction ranged widely pro and anti.
As Jonathan Romney, always one of the most perceptive UK critics, noted, Holy Motors is essentially a compendium film linked by the conceit of an actor named Oscar (Carax regular Denis Lavant) travelling around in a chauffeur-driven limousine, a kind of mobile dressing room where he dresses as wildly different characters and emerges into a variety of scenarios.
[Read INTERVIEW with Holy Motors actor Denis Lavant]
Even from this brief summary, it’s obvious the film is at least partly about the importance of human role-playing as we make out way through life – “how we present ourselves in the world in different moments”, as co-star Kylie Minogue put it with image-defying perspicacity during its Cannes press conference. Lest anyone miss this, Lavant has Edith Scob, who plays Lavant’s chauffeur, don a mask at the end of the film (a sequence that also serves as homage to the actresses’ role in George Franju’s 1960 horror masterpiece, Eyes Without a Face, in which she wore an identical mask).
[Read REVIEW: Holy Motors]
An instant critical cliché arose at Cannes: the film was mad. (Variety called it “certifiably nuts,” Hollywood Reporter “completely bonkers”, The Guardian “barking mad” and Indiewire “balls-to-the-wall crazy.”) Having seen Holy Motors in the more sober environment of a media preview in Australia, I can readily agree that it’s an unconventional film – surreal, witty, endlessly inventive. But mad? Let’s just say that it’s not bound to narrative logic, something you could also say of that favourite inspiration of the surrealists, the human subconscious.
It's an ode to silent cinema
It strikes this viewer that far from being something entirely new, as we were led to believe after its world premiere, Holy Motors is very much of a piece with Carax’s slender but highly personal body of work. His films have long showed evidence of an obsession with the silent era, but this time he explores an especially resonant corner of the tradition – the avant-garde of 1920s Paris, when the surrealistic films of Rene Clair, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau were unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
The filmmaker makes this clear when he has Lavant hold up a start reading “Entr’acte” – not only the French word for intermission, but also the title of Rene Clair’s celebrated 20-minute silent made in 1924 in collaboration with the dada artist, Francis Picabia. Entr’acte, whose random images gradually cohere into an extended comic sequence featuring a runaway, horse-drawn coffin, is centred on death yet is above all, like Carax’s film, playful and lightly absurd.
Given the role of the unconscious and the irrational in surrealism, it makes no sense to look hard for a simple meaning in Holy Motors. Instead, we should look for references and thoughts, patterns, feelings and obsessions.
Leos Carax is in love with Love
Look at the director’s previous four features – Boy Meets Girl (1984), Bad Blood (1986), The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) and Pola X (1999), all of them part of the MIFF retrospective – and it becomes hard to disagree with the biggest critical cliché that has Carax as “cinema’s last romantic”.
While he loves romance in the boy-meets-girl sense, he also carries a flame for the ideal of cinema as a canvas for flamboyant expression and creativity. It is hardly surprising that many have seen Holy as a commentary on film in general. It begins, after all, with Lavant escaping from a mysteriously sealed room and wandering into a cinema where the audience is viewing images by the early pioneer of cinematography, Etienne-Jules Marey.
Carax’s films, whatever their passing moments of naturalism, are essentially set in a capital-C Cinematic world of heightened reality (or unreality) – a place where emotions are highlighted and splashed across the screen in boldly expressionistic strokes. The Lovers on the Bridge scene in which Lavant and Juliette Binoche water-ski down the Seine against a backdrop of spectacular fireworks is his most memorable big-canvas moment. Yet all his films feature comparable scenes; grand gestures that could not be imagined in other medium than cinema – an industrial rock band rehearsing in an enormous concrete space in Pola X; Lavant in Bad Blood part-dancing, part-running down the street to the sound of Bowie’s 'Modern Love'.
It's unashamedly optimistic
The grand moment of passion in Holy arrives early when Lavant changes into a motion capture suit and conducts a wild dance inside a darkened studio, his body lit up to ‘paint’ abstract patterns across the screen.
Like the rest of the film, this scene makes no conventional narrative sense, but that’s not to say it lacks a purpose. As an abstract expression of the pure, responsibility-free optimism of youth, it’s perfect, and arrives at exactly the right spot in the film.
It's about a journey from womb to tomb
For if the film is ‘about’ anything, it is about the human journey from life to death. The wonderfully weird opening in a locked hotel room seems to me a mischievous representation of the infant in the womb, eager to find its way into the world while suspended in a watery environment (this may look like a hotel, but the bizarre sound design is all slopping water and ship sounds).
When Lavant escapes this room and finds he’s inside a cinema, the first thing he spots is an infant – a small girl with her back turned as she walks down the aisle towards the screen. Some time after the motion capture ‘youth’ dance, Lavant transforms into a worried middle-aged man driving his teenage daughter to a party. Here the freedom of youth has made way for the weighty responsibility of parenthood.
It pays its dues to past failures
As to how death enters the film, I will refrain from revealing the ending, but merely observe that the choice of location for this lengthy sequence featuring Kylie Minogue is highly significant. Here Carax returns to the scene of The Lovers on the Bridge – Paris’ famous Pont Neuf, with the Samaritaine department store at one end. This once magnificent building, whose roof offered some of central Paris’s best views of the city, is now an empty shell.
This iconic part of Paris was famously recreated for the earlier film in a hugely expensive studio in the south of France that at the time made Lovers the most expensive French movie ever made. The film, however, bombed at the box office, making it something of a French Heaven’s Gate – a warning to the business side of the industry of the dangers of letting an auteur director get carried away with budget.
The fact the final sequence of Holy is set largely inside the derelict former store invites speculation. It was eight years before Carax got to make his follow-up feature to The Lovers in the form of the Herman Melville-adapted Pola X. This film also bombed. It would be another 13 years before he came up with Holy Motors, with only a short film and a section of a portmanteau film, Tokyo!, to remind cineastes of his continued existence.
The Samaratine sequence in Holy seems to be a reflection by Lavant of his own career over the last two decades – a period that, for a director so obviously in love with cinema, must have been at the very least dispiriting.
Kylie’s role is anyone’s guess, but I’m wagering she represents the difficulties of his career in general. Given his reluctance to give interviews about his films, let alone his private life,
we can but speculate.
What we can surmise with certainty, however, is that during this time he must have read Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, Cosmopolis. It’s striking that Cannes 2012 saw two films in which a male has various personal encounters while being chauffeur-driven around a major city in a white stretch limo. The first of these was David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the DeLillo novel.
The similarity of the two films in their basic outline is so striking as to rule out the likelihood of coincidence. But there’s no question in this writer’s mind that it’s Carax who has come up with the most inspired iteration of this narrative idea. Let us hope there won’t be so lengthy a wait for his next feature.
Holy Motors is now in limited release in Australian cinemas. Tell us what you make of it in the comments below.