The French's love of cinema is legendary, as it perhaps should be considering they invented the medium. So it should be no surprise that every few years or so a love letter emerges from France that's more cerebral than it is syrupy. Enter Leos Carax's first feature-length film since 1999's notorious Pola X, a mild entry into the then-burgeoning New French Extremity. A mad love poem to cinema with an overabundance of imagination in every stanza and a penchant for Pynchonesque flourishes, Holy Motors is thankfully more in league with something more charming like Agnes Varda’s One Hundred and One Nights than it is preoccupied with pushing the boundaries of extreme French cinema.
That’s not to say Monsieur Carax is not concerned in pushing any boundaries this time around. In fact, to the unsuspecting viewer he might be pushing the limitations of her very patience if she thinks she’s sitting down to watch anything that remotely adheres to your standard movie plot, or for that matter, to your standard French art film experience. Definitely leave any and all expectation at the concession stand. Carax is much more concerned in pushing past the limitations of the narrative, conjuring a world that resembles postmodern literature much more than it does the current crop of bloodthirsty and sexually explicit French fanboy metacinema. The movie is truly a trip.
Practically a one-man show, Holy Motors stars Carax stalwart and acting chameleon Denis Lavant as Monsieur Oscar (as in that little golden statuette), a man seemingly wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dreams who is able to literally act out his wildest dreams during the course of one day: from an invalid old lady street beggar to a CGI performance capture actor to a track suit-wearing mafia hitman and his squealing target to a past lover in a Jacques Demy-inspired musical and so on (and so on!) with each transformation more--or less, I don’t know, you tell me--bizarre than the last, all the while being chauffeured around in his white stretch limo from performance to performance by the beautiful, radiant Edith Scob, she of Georges Franju’s horror masterpiece Eyes Without a Face fame. It’s the stuff that dreams (or nightmares) are made of and Holy Motors is the stuff of legend. It’s as though Carax is making up for the 13 years since he last made a feature length movie by packing in every movie, or all of cinema, into little less than two hours of his stream of consciousness story telling. It's arguable that by extension Carax is telling the story of cinema--not the history of cinema, to be clear--but of the tedious, technical and emotional everyday mechanics that are responsible for cinema being both a craft and an art. It's no coincidence that French legend (and Agnes Varda's Simon Cinéma in One Hundred and One Nights) Michel Piccoli shows up towards the end as Monsieur Oscar's ambiguous business overseer. It's a demanding business and the boss is always on your back. As played by a gamely Lavant, Carax's own "Mr. Cinema" (i.e., Monsieur Oscar) is less the fanatic spectator and more of a tireless participant in the world of make-believe.
So it's also easy to interpret Holy Motors as a personal metaphor of where Carax's creative juices were funneled into during that long stretch between features. Could he have realized the hazards of being treated as merely a drudge in an industry that doesn't necessarily reward creativity and originality?
Having struggled during the past decade to get an English-language feature film financed in part due to his status as one of cinema’s agent provocateurs (a designation that seems quaint by today’s artistic standards), Carax’s output since 1999 has been confined to three short films, most memorably a segment in 2008’s wonderful triplet of shorts, Tokyo!. Fans of that film might recall Carax's segment, "Merde," a batty but delightful bit sandwiched between two other batty but delightful bits. Well, if seeing more of that hygiene-impaired, ill-mannered leprechaun doesn't make you merde your pants in anticipation of Carax's latest, then nothing will. With that shot of creative discharge still fresh in my mind, it's mind-boggling to think that these days even French Cinema isn't immune to crass exploitation, or even worse, crass imitation. In the last decade, originality has given way to remakes, reimaginings and rip-offs by a hack generation of new French directors pushing boundaries to the "extreme" while a true auteur like Leos Carax has been afforded room for his vision only in spasms. Like the business of movie-making itself, Holy Motors is an enterprise continuously playing itself. It's absurd, impenetrably convoluted, a long winded process that makes about as much sense as if it were run by a family of apes. And it's awesome...
Holy Motors will open in Los Angeles at The Nuart on Friday, November 16, followed by a national roll-out.