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

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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.

Leos Carax's Holy Motors.
A sensation at Cannes this year,Leos Carax's Holy Motors would suggest a career revival, if it didn’t feel so valedictory

Courtesy Pierre Grise Productions.

The savior of French film at 24, a has-been at 31, a wandering auteur now in his 50s, Leos Carax has had a career as convulsive and tragic as his movies. L’amour fou in all its forms has been his great subject, the ecstatic coup de cinéma his abiding aspiration. Has any working director conjured up more epiphanies in as few hours of running time? Strewn across his movies are slivers and set pieces that grasp for transcendence: swoony, love-soaked soliloquies, loopy digressions into the absurd, choreographed arias of pop bliss.

But we should use the term “working director” advisedly. Since 1984, Carax has made five measly features, a victim of bad luck, bad publicity, busted budgets, and his own uncompromising sensibility. Now with Holy Motors, his first feature in more than a decade, Carax has made a spectral and dolorous movie about the worn-down artist in midlife, a project that he admits was born out of a decade of false starts. That it happens to be a visionary work—one of the best movies of the year—only makes us yearn for a filmography that never was.

Jean Luc-Godard said that all you needed to make a movie is a girl and a gun. For his first movie, Carax didn’t even bother with the gun. Boy Meets Girl (1984) was essentially a string of grace notes patched onto a wisp of a plot. In his first appearance as Carax’s alter ego, Denis Lavant plays Alex, a heartbroken filmmaker who wanders the Paris night and stumbles upon a man breaking up with his girlfriend over the intercom. The rest of the movie tracks Alex as he drifts toward the woman, Mireille (Mireille Perrier), a suicidal actress with sad Falconetti eyes.

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Carax’s indifference to story may test some viewers’ patience—the movie can be static when not ecstatic—but Boy Meets Girl is that rare accomplishment: a debut with a fully formed voice. In debt to masters old and New Wave, Carax sprinkles the movie with close-ups out of Griffith, dance numbers out of Godard, a party out of Fellini. But his eccentric personality holds it all together: a half-cocksure, half-diffident blend of cool and pathos, with a streak of fatalism. The precocious film got terrific reviews and prompted revered critic Serge Daney to pronounce “that the cinema will go on, will produce its Rimbauds in spite of everything.”

As if overcompensating for his debut’s absent plot, Carax abruptly immersed us in a world of intrigue in his next feature. In the terrific Mauvais Sang (1986), a shadowy syndicate seeks to get its hands on a serum, locked away in a lab, that will cure a mysterious AIDS-like disease spreading fast. They hire Alex (Lavant again), a card sharp whose late father was the best operative in the business. He says yes—but only after getting a glimpse of Anna (Juliette Binoche, never lovelier), the gangster’s gal. Carax being Carax, the heist recedes into the background as the movie settles into one long, languorous night of Alex’s wooing of Anna. (Seduction is too strong a word—there’s something beguilingly innocent about Carax’s love stories.) It peaks with one of the most exhilarating pop moments in movies: lovelorn Alex’s mad dash down an empty city street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”

One of the underappreciated gems of 1980s cinema, Mauvais Sang elaborates on the hallmarks of Carax’s work introduced in Boy Meets Girl. It is at once a valentine to its leading lady (Carax was then dating Binoche), a master class on the close up, a lilting urban nocturne, and a treatise on the annihilating power of love. With its evocations of Chaplin and Godard’s Alphaville, Mauvais Sang was another tribute to Carax’s forefathers. But seen afresh today, we also glimpse traces of the filmmakers who followed: the pell-mell cinema of Arnaud Desplechin, the stylized compositions of Hal Hartley, the drenched romanticism of Wong Kar-wai.

The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) was the last entry in the so-called “Alex” trilogy—and the folly that would nearly finish Carax. This time Lavant’s Alex is a vagrant who lives on the Pont-Neuf, Paris’s oldest bridge, closed for renovation. Into his life wanders Michèle (Binoche), a newly homeless artist who is going blind. But this City Lights homage takes a dark turn: Lavant’s tramp, instead of helping Michelle regain her sight, hides news of the cure from her, afraid that he’ll lose her to her old life. (In Carax’s movies, love isn’t just self-immolating—it burns down everything else.)