Leos Carax (aka Alex Christophe Dupont) is the French auteur who seemed to have fallen between the cracks.
The former enfant terrible is mostly known, where he is known, for 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge). It was a love story among the homeless of Paris which, at the time of its creation, made the headlines for its scandalous expense and the numerous difficulties on set.
Despite the popularity of Les Amants, Carax's belated follow-up, 1999’s Pola X, failed to garner anywhere near the critical or commercial success of its predecessor. Carax spent the next decade or so in creative limbo, cursed by stalled projects with only the occasional short film surfacing to remind us he was still alive and working.
The relatively low budget, digitally shot Holy Motors therefore came as such a surprise to the industry at the otherwise underwhelming Cannes 2012. Carax’s free-form oddball odyssey knocked the critics for six, even if not everyone was convinced of its greatness.
Indeed, browsing the column inches before attending a preview screening at Queen's Film Theatre, it was difficult to ascertain a general consenus among critics.
The plot, for what there is of it, concerns Oscar (played by Denis Lavant and essentially Carax’s alter ego in the majority of his ouerve) who is being driven around Paris in a stretched limo. The vehicle is kitted out with a mirror in the back, make up and a whole wardrobe's worth of props and costumes. With this arsenal at hand, Oscar transforms himself, assuming various roles that all relate to Paris in one way or another.
Using make up and prosthetics, Oscar becomes a homeless street woman, a track-suited gangster and, most bizarrely, a priapic hair-munching satyr with the appropriate name of Monsieur Merde. Naturally there is a lot of the film that makes little sense. Carax's vision is open to interpretation.
Is the director concerned with the amorphous nature of acting? The restorative powers of cinema? 'The beauty of the act,' as Oscar declares? The differing roles we all play in our professional and social lives? The answer is, possibly none of the above, possibly all of the above. Just when one theory seems to take shape the film twists back on itself, rendering all theories null and void with the opening of the next scene.
Regardless of this, for sheer mad invention Holy Motors is indeed a blast of fresh air. It dispenses with conventional structure and, much like Buñuel's 1974 period piece The Phantom of Liberty, for example, is instead a series of vignettes and sketches that only vaguely cohere to form an overall whole.
It is Carax's awareness of the history of film (the self-consciousness of it all) that pays dividends. For the hardened cinephile, Holy Motors is full of references from films past, not least with the occasional flash of inspiration from the silent movie era. Edith Scob’s role, in addition, includes a riff on her most famous role in Les Yeux Sans Visage for those in the know.
While Holy Motors, for all of its oddities, just works, its appeal will undoubtedly depend on the viewers’ tolerance for the bizarre.
I’m loathe to give any more of the plot away, but those intrigued at the idea of the aforementioned satyr kidnapping a model and chewing on her hair or, indeed, of a suicidal, ballad-singing Kylie Minogue performing in an abandoned department store will need no further encouragement from me to check this film out.
Holy Motors runs in Queen's Film Theatre from October 1 - 11.