Tuesday 2 October 2012
(Leos Carax, 2012) In a former life and almost two decades ago Leos Carax was the enfant terrible of French cinema. He was also a dazzlingly talented and ambitious young director. And then, following the failure of his underrated Melville adaptation Pola X in 1999, he stopped working. In the 13 years since there has only been a single chapter in the portmanteau film Tokyo, starring Carax's old cinematic surrogate, Denis Lavant as the bizarre, sewer-dwelling, shambling, flower-eating goblin known, seemingly, as "Merde". Well, now Carax is back. And so is Merde. He is one of the many identities assumed by Lavant's Monsieur Oscar in Carax's wild and baffling comeback movie, Holy Motors. Oscar is being driven around Paris in a white stretch limo to a series of appointments, for each of which he must adopt a different persona. In the limo he dons make-up, changes costume and tries on different wigs before slipping into a series of different scenarios. As Merde he terrorises a cemetery before kidnapping a model (Eva Mendes) in the middle of a fashion shoot. In another "appointment", he dons a motion capture suit, then performs a set of shadow-boxing-cum-dance-routine moves which are then turned into a cgi dragon-mutant sex scene. In another he is a concerned father picking up his teen daughter from a party. And an assassin executing a banker (also played by Lavant) outside a restaurant. An old man on his deathbed. A man reunited briefly with an old flame (Kylie Minogue). In between these scenes it is never entirely clear what else is "real", what is "performance", as the whole thing operates under something resembling dream logic. There is a musical interlude where Lavant leads a band heavy on accordions around the interior of a Cathedral. Lavant twice appears to murder himself. A boss appears to scold him about possible slipped standards. Some appointments seem to bleed into his own life in the back of the limo as he becomes tired and drunk. The encounter with Minogue begins like a chance meeting before - perhaps - transforming into something else. What it all means is the question many viewers will come away wrestling with, and it is one of the film's strengths that there are so many possible readings; it seems to be about the nature of cinema itself, and our relationship with it, about performance and the meaning of acting, about life in this era of rapid technological change, about mortality and death. It is a rich, baggy film, crammed with lovely moments and fascinating details, heavy with allusion and references. Though a couple of the appointments may stretch viewer patience - the nature of Holy Motors courting artificiality as a theme means that it struggles at a few crucial moments to earn any emotional response - it is entertaining and energetic throughout. Carax's direction is a lot less flashy than it was at his peak, but his confidence gives the film a steady rhythm and solidity which works well given the fantastic subject matter, and he retains his powerful eye. There is also a sort of joy here, joy in the glory of cinema itself, its ability to conjure up a world, a mood, an emotion in an instant of sound and image. Each of Carax's worlds here is precisely evoked, the emotion skewered within seconds. A couple of the episodes necessarily stand out; Merde and his encounter with Mendes is quite unforgettable in its combination of comedy, creepiness and strong visuals, and Minogue's melancholy song in the wreckage of a closed Department store is moving and oddly beautiful. But really, each of them contributes something to the overall mood, each of them helps make Holy Motors work, helps make it the unique beast it is. It feels at times like an attempt to sum up modern cinema, as if it was trying to include a little bit of everything, and only narrowly failing. Unique it most certainly is; I have literally never seen another film like it.