Holy Motors: A Triumphant Return for the Elusive French Auteur Leos Carax

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 18 2012 7:15 AM

The Return of Leos Carax

Holy Motors—one of the best movies of the year—will make you long for the movies the French auteur never made.

(Continued from Page 1)

That synopsis doesn’t hint at the movie’s bigness. To achieve his vision, Carax had a replica of the Pont-Neuf and the surrounding area built in the south of France. Made for a staggering 160 million francs in a time when French movies cost less than 3 million, the movie went way over schedule, nearly bankrupted three producers, and was a preordained folly when it finally came out in 1991. It flopped at the box office and was dismissed by French critics, offended by the boy wonder’s hubris. It didn’t see the light of day here until 1999.

The rejection deeply wounded Carax—and unfairly buried what now stands as one of the great city symphonies of our time. Its disastrous production notwithstanding, The Lovers on the Bridge is the work of a more mature filmmaker. Grubbier and looser, it sheds the insecurity that lurked behind the stylization of his previous films. Again the idols loom large: Renoir and Vigo are the obvious touchstones (the breeze of Boudu blows through these frames; the barge from L’Atalante drifts by). But it is one scene that affirms its place in cinephilia. As the fireworks for the French bicentennial illuminate the starless sky, a wasted Alex and Michelle dance on the bridge, Paris theirs for a night. It’s the most ecstatic celebration of a city since Manhattan’s overture, a movie moment so delirious you don’t know whether to dance along or genuflect in its presence.

In some ways, The Lovers on the Bridge marked the end of Carax’s career, or a version of what it could’ve been. In the two decades that followed, only one feature and one short would see release. Pola X premiered at Cannes in 1999 tagged as the auteur’s long-awaited comeback. A crepuscular and conspicuously joyless film that transposed Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities to present-day France, it was recognizably the work of a major artist—but a minor entry was hardly acceptable after an eight-year hiatus. Critics mostly yawned; the only noise it made was for its incestuous plot and the unsimulated sex scene between stars Guillaume Depardieu and Katerina Gollubeva. It would take nearly another decade for Carax to return with “Merde!” his contribution to Tokyo! (2008), a trio of shorts from Carax, Bong Joon Ho, and Michel Gondry. That too came and went with little notice.

Advertisement

That two-decade lull makes the existence of Holy Motors all the more miraculous. A sensation at Cannes this year, the movie would suggest a career revival, if it didn’t feel so valedictory. It begins inscrutably: A white stretch limo cruises the Paris streets, carrying an enigmatic passenger (Lavant) named Monsieur Oscar, who has several “appointments” to make. At his first, he gets out by the Seine dressed as an old hag and begs for change. At his next, he is driven to a motion-capture lab where he acts out a sex scene with a contortionist—all translated into a CGI rendering of a dragon-like creature in action. The job after that has him playing a gnarled monster—Lavant’s character in “Merde”—who kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes) and brings her to his underground lair. And so the appointments go.

If Carax’s previous movies were valentines to his leading ladies, Holy Motors can be seen as a gushing tribute to the incomparable Lavant, a former acrobat whose athleticism, grace, and mutability are the movie’s true subject. As Monsieur Oscar goes from one assignment to the next, he flits across genres: fantasy, domestic drama, gangland action, musical. Enacting an entirely new life with every project, Oscar emerges as a metaphor for the film artist—one who might be on his last legs. In the movie’s world, it’s revealed that Oscar is a performer of sorts for a voyeuristic entertainment project. (There is talk of the small cameras that capture each vignette he walks into.) “Do you still enjoy your work?” an old man—perhaps a studio exec?—asks as Oscar peels off another layer of makeup. “The beauty of the act” is what keeps him going, he says. That’s in the eye of the beholder, of course, the old man says—but what “if there’s no more beholder?” Oscar replies. Carax, who has confronted that very real prospect in his career, leaves the question unanswered.

“You need to feed your eyes for your dreams,” says Alex in Mauvais Sang. Holy Motors seems a response to that dictum; it’s as if Carax was gorging us on imagery in case it takes him another decade to make a movie. As its Lynchian overture suggests, the movies remain the center of Carax’s dreams. At once demented and world-weary, Holy Motors is the work of a mad virtuoso whose mood has soured, but whose passion remains undimmed. It’s l’amour fou again, but this time for Carax’s oldest love: the movies.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.