The French actor reflects on his remarkable performance playing 11 characters in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.
1 Aug 2012 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 18 Dec 2019 - 2:43 PM

When I met up with eccentric French actor Denis Lavant in Cannes last May, incredibly, it had been 21 years since our prior interview for Leos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. (The English-language title The Lovers on the Bridge never quite had the same ring). In the 1991 film, Lavant had co-starred with Juliette Binoche and they had played vagrants and lovers living on the oldest and most famous of Parisian bridges over the Seine when it was closed for restoration. At the time the biggest budget French film ever made because of overages and difficulties arising from reconstructing a replica bridge in the south of France, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf had been an overall disaster, even if the film is now considered a minor classic.

You need to believe in the ability of your imagination to allow you to perform your role.

Carax went into an eight-year exile, and when he finally returned with 1999's Pola X starring the adventurous Guillaume Depardieu, that film bombed as well. So what of the French wunderkind who had shown such promise with 1984's Boy Meets Girl and 1986's Bad Blood both starring Denis Lavant and with Binoche in the latter? (Carax and Binoche were in a romantic relationship for five years, until the Pont-Neuf debacle.)

In 2008, Carax turned up again in Cannes with the anthology film Tokyo! and a segment called Merde (Michel Gondry and Korea's Joon-ho Bong directed the other segments). It marked his first film with Lavant since Les Amants du Pont-Neuf ; Lavant starred as a violent monster living in the Tokyo sewers and speaking a gibberish language. A similar violent monster is now one of 11 characters Lavant plays in Carax's new film Holy Motors, which has been seen as a return to form for the director who over the years has retained a cult following for his unique visual style.

The enigmatic Carax rarely gives interviews and refuses to explain his films, so that Lavant and, incredibly, Kylie Minogue were left to talk up his film in Cannes. While Minogue, to her credit, was up for whatever Carax threw at her during their brief period of filming, the Australian songstress hardly had to go out on a limb, a place where Carax readily sent his craggy-faced friend. While Lavant's vignette as the violent monster with Hollywood hottie Eva Mendes (in a cemetery and a sewer) has to be seen to be believed, he got to live a kind of actor's dream, branching from assassin to victim, from beggar-woman to businessman, from father to lover, as his actor character is ferried around in a white stretch limo, with his real home life at the end coming as a huge surprise as well.

So what the hell is this all about? Critics have maintained it's a journey through all different kinds of cinema, and Carax alluded to this during his one public appearance at his film's Cannes press conference. Though he said it wasn't a conscious decision.

“When you make a film you make cinema,” he said. “It's a beautiful island and it has a big cemetery.” When a British journalist told him his film was (delightfully) bonkers and asked who he'd made for, he replied, dryly, “I don't know who is the public. All I know is it's a bunch of people who will be dead very soon. I don't make public films. I make private films. I invite whoever wants to come and see it.”

Lavant in our later interview is able to shed a little more light, though not that much. “You never know how the audience will react,” he says in his speedy way of talking, hardly stopping to take a breath. “But at a certain point, you have to dive in; you need to believe in the ability of your imagination to allow you to perform your role. It is a fear, which is very, very close to terror and you wonder, 'What am I doing here?' Then a few moments later you feel great pleasure and hopefully you are giving happiness and emotion to the audience. When you make or shoot a film it's like going out to sea on a boat and you have to trust the captain because you know that you might face a storm or rocks. With Leos, it's not always an easy journey, as happened with Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, where we really felt like a crew of people doing forced labour. There was a time when we totally lost sight of our goals and we could no longer understand what was real, what was fiction and what was the aim of the characters. It was a true madness.”

Whether working with Carax is a dream or a nightmare—and clearly it's a bit of both—Lavant says playing 11 different characters in Holy Motors was hard work. “We started shooting mid-August 2011 and we shot in continuity for two and a half months. Between each scene we'd do intense preparation for the next character, working in all the departments, lighting and art direction, make up and special effects. This all had to been done very, very fast. It was a huge challenge since this was my first time working with so many artificial effects—to be able to play very human characters. This might sound paradoxical but it did help me that I had to endure all that. Sometimes I had to stand for five hours to have the make-up and special effects applied.”

When Lavant finally saw the film he had no idea what to expect. “I didn't know how Leos had structured all that footage and during the official Cannes screening I was so touched. I was especially touched for Leos and by the audience's recognition of his work, and I realised how more and more I feel totally at his service as a filmmaker and how complementary we are. In order to have that trust it has to be a team effort. It's an act of love and generosity to be able to produce such beautiful work. Of course, it's a film that doesn't have any clear message or at least not an intelligible one. But it's extremely rich and refined and so dense and human.”

As we are being wound up, I ask if Lavant and Carax, who are both 51, are as opposite as they seem. Lavant stands up suddenly and points to his head and then to various other body parts.

“He's almost as tall as me, more slender and has less muscles, more hair, salt and pepper hair. I'm more eccentric than he is, although he seems much more sober than he is, he seems to be very shy almost. He would answer yes and no to questions but not because he is arrogant. He's just thinking of the right thing to say in order to give you an answer, while I tend to have this stream of consciousness.”

Holy Motors

Sunday 29 December, 10:35pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

France, 2012
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Language: French
Director: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Jean-François Balmer, Eva Mendes, Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue
What's it about?
From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Lavant), a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man. He seems to be playing roles, plunging headlong into each part – but there are no cameras present. From Leos Carax, cult director of The Lovers on the Bridge and the upcoming musical Annette (starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard).

Holy Motors: Cheat sheet
Holy Motors Review