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.
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.