This way, myth: Leos Carax's Holy Motors

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Carax, in the films opening sequence.
  • Carax, in the film's opening sequence.
Like everything else by the singular writer-director Leos Carax, Holy Motors (which opens Friday at the Music Box) is so intensely personal that uninitiated viewers might wish they were provided footnotes before going in. To cite just one of the film's cryptic gestures, between the final shot and the end credits, Carax briefly fills the screen with a photograph identified by only a few words in Cyrillic. The photograph is of Yekaterina Golubeva, the Russian actress who played a leading role in Carax's previous feature, Pola X (1999), and appeared in movies by Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont. Golubeva and Carax had lived together for several years and were raising a child when she died under mysterious circumstances last year. While Holy Motors is generally playful in its storytelling—the dreamlike plot concerns a shapeshifting figure named Monsieur Oscar (Carax's real middle name, incidentally) who assumes about a dozen different identities over the course of a day—its tone becomes increasingly morbid as it goes along. If you're unfamiliar with the director's biography, this unusual progression just might seem perverse.

In a recent blog post, Jonathan Rosenbaum helpfully explained some of Motors' numerous movie references, which can be as inscrutable as the personal ones:

[E]ach successive "act" or performance of [Monsieur Oscar] is a derisive or sarcastic gesture aimed at digitized contemporary cinema, an early shot of a cinema audience a reference to the final shot of King Vidor's The Crowd, the last appearance of Édith Scob a direct reference to her career-defining role in Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, and perhaps even the final dialogue between stretch limos a conceit inspired by the deleted prologue to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard—reportedly laughed off the screen at a preview—in which the various corpses in a morgue converse.

Is it necessary to know all this in order to appreciate Holy Motors? Probably not. Carax's work consistently operates on a level of spectacle; his films are rich in physical comedy, trick photography, and outlandish sets and costumes (Monsieur Oscar's incarnations in Motors include a hairy monster and a CGI dragon, and the movie climaxes with a full-fledged musical number). Carax clearly adores big-budget entertainment—in fact, in a recent interview with the New York Times, he cites Chronicle as one of his favorite movies of the last year—and his movies convey a giddy sense of showmanship that shines through the hermetic symbolism.

As Rosenbaum has argued elsewhere, they're also more closely related to poetry than prose, with practically every shot striving for some indelibly beautiful image. This ambition stems from the director's unique brand of cinephilia: in interviews, he describes cinema as a state of mind that transforms one's experience into something magical—a sentiment that evokes both classic Hollywood (the "dream factory") and surrealism as articulated by early practitioners like André Breton and Salvador Dali. His five features to date manage to split the difference between these two reference points; tellingly, they draw extensively from the visual language of the silent era, which coincided with the height of French surrealism. (Rosenbaum has explained the typically private inspiration behind this affinity: "As a child or young teenager, [Carax] went for long periods without speaking... and during one of these periods he discovered, at the Cinematheque Française, the silent cinema.")

Denis Lavant, playing Monsieur Oscar playing a monster
  • Denis Lavant, playing Monsieur Oscar playing a monster
Since his first feature, Boy Meets Girl (1984), Carax has regularly fetishized filmmaking technique, employing fade-outs, tracking shots, and music the way other directors use fancy special effects. Even when he stages a realistic sequence—like the opening passage of his masterpiece, The Lovers on the Bridge (1991), or the quiet father-daughter drama that appears about half-way into Motors—this too feels otherworldly, the on-screen behavior seeming too real to be true. It's no coincidence that both of these examples feature Carax's regular leading man Denis Lavant, an incredible physical performer whose work recalls that of the great silent comedians. His outsize gestures mesh nicely with the director's, enhancing the mythic vibe.

Ultimately it's the mythic rather than the personal qualities that distinguish Carax's output. Or maybe it's more appropriate to say that Carax uses personal details as raw material for the dream-making machine. Adding to Motors' downbeat tone are frequent intimations that audiences no longer regard the movies in such grand terms. In one of the sarcastic gestures Rosenbaum alludes to, Lavant assumes the identity of a CGI technician, donning a latex suit and performing balletic movements for a motion-capture effects sequence. Carax holds off on showing the result, focusing instead on the human gracefulness that the technology relies on and yet was created to eclipse.

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