It may have come home empty-handed, but no one would deny Holy Motors was the talk of Cannes a few months ago. The comeback of Leos Carax, French cinema’s favourite “enfant terrible”, after a decade spent in near-obscurity, was the perfect occasion for the industry to do what it always does: celebrate the outcast it formerly ostracized for being such a weirdo. It’s something the filmmaker himself is so aware of that he made it the subject of his film. In the opening images, a sleepy Carax is waking up in his pyjamas and breaking the wall that – literally – separates him from the world. He ends up into the light of a film projector, in a full-house cinema, where all the spectators are transfixed. The “film” hasn’t even properly started yet, and the director’s own hibernation and his return are already staged and set up for endless mise-en-abymes and self-reflexive aphorisms. Above all, Holy Motors is a Leos Carax film about Leos Carax making films again.
Hailed by most critics present as an “ode to cinema”, a “love letter to the big screen”, a “return to form” and all the usual superlatives, the film has retained an element of mystery. Despite reading a dozen reviews beforehand, I still had no clue about what Holy Motors was about when I sat on the first balcony of the Max Linder cinema, one of Paris’ most colourful theatres (you should really catch a film there if you visit the capital by the way). Once seen, it still evades description. Yes, there is a story, or rather, stories, but no real narrative. Each “appointment” of the main character, Mr Oscar, is the pretext for a slice of genre cinema, often pushed to its most absurd corners.
However, Holy Motors avoids being a collection of sketches. Despite going through the tropes of horror, thriller, fantastic, musical (the rather sublime part with Kylie Minogue singing in a deserted department store) or even naturalistic drama, including an incredibly violent father and daughter emotional contretemps and an interminably melodramatic “dying old man” strand (did Carax unconsciously parody Cannes winner Amour?), each sequence belongs to a coherent whole; everything united in its madness, its preposterousness, its own internal logic. Even the silent film inserts or the “entracte” – a music video for a fictional alt-rock accordion band – doesn’t spoil the ensemble.
Style-wise, Carax is also all-embracing. If the cinema du look neon stylings are prominent (he was, after all, with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, the creator of the aesthetic in the 1980s), the impeccably shot Holy Motors, goes from CGI motion-capture porn to the chic classicism of perfume adverts. Carax is a nostalgic: he longs for the huge machinery of bygone years – the “holy motors” – against the miniature technology that pervades our everyday life, but his vision still looks futuristic.
Carax’s visual mastery would be nothing without Dennis Lavant’s truly extraordinary Lon Chaney-esque lead performance. The face melted by a hard-lived life, his Mr Oscar is a weary clown putting on masks all day when he steps out of his limo, in a world populated by actors, all immortal and polymorph, meeting each other during mysterious appointments. Mere humans, in all their surburban mediocrity and sameness, are monkeys (once again, Carax is not affraid of using literal images for his metaphors).
The “stars”, when they appear, rise up to Denis Lavant’s incredible presence. Minogue, as mentioned earlier, is impeccable, but it’s Eva Mendes that truly impresses. Her meeting with Monsieur Merde (Mr Shit, Mr Oscar’s most revolting incarnation) is a jaw-dropper. Looking something like a cross between a stoned drag-queen and a high-end escort, she’s kidnapped during a photoshoot in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, and drawn half-naked in the sewers. There, Mr Merde forces a makeshift burka on her, before lying down nude on her knees, with a sizeable erection. Such association between the Hollywood star and the freak, staged in a long take, disturbs as it seems so inconceivable. The erect penis here (fake, as Carax wanted Lavant’s dick to look like a dog’s attributes) in front of one of the industry’s illustrious representants encapsulates Carax appetite – for life, for film, etc – and his will to shock, to say “fuck you” to the studio system. The penis is also flesh and blood, against all the virtual matter surrounding us.
Hence Leos Carax re-asserts himself as the missing link between La Nouvelle Vague and the New French Extreme movement. Holy Motors‘ disregard for reality and narrative and love for mise-en-abyme and surrealism are pure Godard, while the successive transgressive tableaux of sex, dirt and violence set in a nocturnal Paris wouldn’t go amiss in Gaspar Noé’s or Claire Denis’ work.
Holy Motors‘ nihilistic approach to narrative, genre and even taste makes it impossible to review in plain terms of “good” or “bad”. It’s surely not for everyone. But as a filmic object, it’s truly unique. Something you seldom see, an immensely watchable ride into one of cinema’s most creative and deranged cinematic minds. A love letter to cinema indeed, with added stains of piss, blood and sperm.
Holy Motors is in cinemas from Friday, released by Artificial Eye. Contributor Guillaume Gendron can be followed on Twitter @GGendron20.