Why is it that many of the most gifted film makers also happen to be the ones who rarely make films? I’m thinking of Terrence Malick, the Salinger of American movies, or the enfant terrible of indie cinema Harmony Korine. We can add Leos Carax to this list. These directors share something in common; a belief in the spontaneity of the film, a desire to show something out of the ordinary, to capture a special moment no matter how small. Carax has not made a feature film for 13 years, since his troublesome Pola X. How does he fare coming back from the wilderness?
Holy Motors is perhaps Carax’s strangest film yet. While his earlier films like Les Amants Du Ponts Neuf and Mauvais Sang dabbled in off kilter theatrics and shards of surrealism, Holy Motors goes full throttle in its search for the great unknown. The plot follows Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a Parisian, as he is chauffeured around town in a gleaming white limousine by Celine (Edith Scob), his elderly female driver. What goes on from here is a matter for the viewer’s own interpretation. Oscar has a set of assignments he has to complete, each involving a new character to embody; so he might be an old beggar lady wandering the streets, or a shellsuited thug. There is a touch of Harmony Korine’s last two films in this process; the mischievous hijacking of another’s identity, and the liberating feeling of being someone else.
There seems to be little purpose to any of the assignments. To the untrained eye, what Oscar is trying to achieve will forever be a mystery. It almost seems like performance for the sake of performance. If we were to follow the idea that Holy Motors is a love letter to cinema, then it makes sense as a piece of work. The world doesn’t need cinema, like Oscar doesn’t need to perform, so why not do it for the love of it? There is a telling piece of dialogue where Oscar laments the loss of cameras to watch him in his job, saying there are too small now; could Carax be lamenting the loss of the classic cinema as he knows it? The frequent interludes of silent cinema clips, the involvement of the starlet Eva Mendes and the references to George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Edith Scob wearing that mask) all points to a work that is in love with the silver screen.
Denis Lavant again proves that he is one of the most distinctive and mesmerising actors in film today. The De Niro to Carax’s Scorsese, his ageless physicality is on show not just in his ninja hijinks but in the way he swaggers along the floor as a leprechaun like figure, or emotes to his daughter. Without Lavant you feel this film would not exist, and the same goes for Carax’s whole career. They are brothers in lunacy. Which leads me on to the reason Holy Motors doesn’t grip me like some of his earlier films; Juliette Binoche. The relationship between Lavant and Binoche was both touching and electric, providing the warm, beating heart of his earlier films. With Denis Lavant on his own, the film is slightly colder for it, more melancholy and isolated. While the highlights are frequent and bizarre, there is something missing to tie it all together.
Despite this, Holy Motors is by far the most original and outrageous film you will see this year, or any other year for that matter. Leos Carax proves that he has more relevant than ever, a breath of fresh air compared to the stale, formulaic films of both the mainstream and the arthouse.