‘Holy Motors’ opens Friday, November 9th at the Music Box Theater.
Something tells me that once Leos Carax’s befuddling, thrilling and prodigious Holy Motors (France, 2012) starts making the rounds among Academy voters, there’s going to be a bit of consternation. Didn’t we just give Best Picture and Best Actor to a French film last year? We can get away with snubbing it for Best Picture – it’s a highly weird film, despite being extraordinarily entertaining and masterfully, if indulgently, directed. But Denis Lavant’s performance is leagues past anything that American actors will survey this year in terms of technical skills, emotional range or just flat-out blowing an audience’s mind. Who Is This Guy?!
Well, firstly, he rarely sets foot outside of France for work, unless it’s a location on the French film he’s working on. He’s primarily a theatrical actor; his feature films are infrequent, and he has little interest in learning English (he finds the language too ‘commercial.’) He’s best known for Leos Carax’s films – Carax has made five feature films, and Levant is in four of them: Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), The Lovers On The Bridge (Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf), and this one, Holy Motors. He’s small and stocky, with a very singular character-actor face, and is a highly skilled physical actor – impressively acrobatic. He’s also well known for his roles in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) and Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (2007).
And Leos Carax? After his first two impressively received films, he started on what he thought would be a relatively small third film, The Lovers On The Bridge (Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf). A love story between two homeless artists, a circus performer (Levant) and a painter who is slowly going blind (Juliette Binoche), it was to be shot on Paris’ landmark Pont-Neuf bridge while it was closed for renovation. But production setbacks and an injury to Levant stretched the schedule to the point where location shooting on the actual bridge became impossible, and a life-sized replica of the bridge was constructed in Lansargues in southern France. Shooting began in August 1988 (in Paris), but with cast and crew having to eventually travel, subsequent (enormous) cost overruns and chronic financing problems, the film wasn’t completed until 1991. It did pretty well, but I doubt if it ever recouped its costs. It’s a swooning, hard-edged melodrama and visual feast that’s still well worth seeing, in the same way Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart is (another ambitious ‘small’ film that ballooned out of control and practically ruined Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company, but nonetheless ended up being a pretty good movie). But Carax’s output has been meager since – Pola X, an adaptation of Melville’s Pierre, Or The Ambiguities in 1999, which got a lukewarm reception, and an episode of the little-seen omnibus film Tokyo! In 2008.
The man has obviously been holding out on us since Lovers; Holy Motors is one of the most fiercely creative films I’ve seen in quite a few years. Not only is it a compelling narrative – a series of ‘assignments’ performed by Monsieur Oscar (Levant), headquartered in the back of a chauffeured stretch limousine, for unnamed purposes and/or employers, – but it’s also a showcase for the power of artistic invention, the malleability of life as depicted in film, and how thin the line is between real life and imagination. On one assignment, Mr. Oscar is a crippled old woman begging for alms along the river Seine. In another, he’s a motion-capture artist doing an elaborately sensual dance for what appears to be a video game or computer-animated short film. Then he’s a sewer-dwelling vagabond satyr who wreaks havoc on a fashion-photography shoot in Père Lachaise Cemetery and absconds with their model (Eva Mendes). Then he’s a greasy underworld thug committing a murder. Then the unsympathetic father to a painfully shy teenage daughter. An old man dying, attended to by his loving daughter. A heartsick lover cast aside by an equally ardent ex-partner (an impressive Kylie Minogue). Including Mr. Oscar, we follow 11 stories, all ‘starring’ our… well, what exactly is he? An actor? A hired agent-provocateur? Some kind of guardian and/or avenging angel? An other-worldly agent of random fate? We become acquainted with his chauffeur, the elegant professional Céline (played by the great seasoned elegant professional Edith Scob), and we witness a short meeting with his employer (Michel Piccoli), but the presence of each just deepens the already compelling question we’ve been asking all along, on a number of levels – Who Is This Guy?!
The opening scenes of the film forthrightly mix Carax’s storytelling priorities – is life a waking dream? Can my film and real life be the same thing? Or is it never, absolutely? From there, it’s on to the aforementioned assignments of Mr. Oscar, mixing pretense with the fate of real people, constantly testing our own sense of where one leaves off and the other begins. I found this film to be a complete mind-blower – cohesive and easy to follow, yet setting little revelatory philosophical mind-bombs along the way in as entertainingly theatrical a fashion as one could wish for from any film. Hollywood and the Academy can fight all they want over the late-year American releases over the next few months, but I’ve already seen what is easily the best picture of the year, and it’s Holy Motors. You should, too.