A man leaves home in the morning to go to work; a well-dressed man of obvious success, with an American haircut, waving to his family. He boards his white stretch limo, driven by Celine, a striking elderly lady (Edith Scob) and departs. Inside the limo there is a changing room and the man transforms himself into a destitute bag lady who shuffles the streets muttering to herself perhaps incoherently, perhaps mystically, ignored by those around her whatever the case. The man (played with a tour de force performance by long-time Leos Carax collaborator Denis Lavant) is an actor and he will spend the day transforming himself into a variety of characters – weird morphing aliens, a scatological leprechaun, M. Merde, a gangster, a tired working father. Each character plays a small scene divided by conversations with his driver, a glass of something, a smoke a moment to tiredly take stock of his existential dilemma. Who is he really? What is this that we are watching? Is it genius? Is it indulgent tosh? Is it a bizarre mixture of the two?
The film came out of Leos Carax’s frustration. After a number of feature film projects fell through his last feature-length movie dates back to 1999’s Pola X – Carax devised this project by which he could make a series of short genre-spanning films that would, if the project were to fall through again, be able to survive as stand-alone pieces. This economy of necessity is one of cinema’s happier accidents. Driven by a desperate need to make films, the film Carax has accomplished is an aching love letter to the art form that seems to have treated its disciple so cruelly. The meaning of the metaphor might not bear much heavy discussion – the actor’s name is Monsieur Oscar and this is probably a joke as to the only way Carax can get close to the statuette that marks Hollywood approval – but what cannot be denied is a sense of exhilaration at the possibilities of film as something other than a way of transferring books, plays, games (computer and board), graphic novels, old TV series and comic books to screen. Instead of a dumping ground of the culture’s nostalgia for itself, Holy Motors is about continuing the hard slog of original creation. Among the episodes, there are the gobsmacking flights of fancy, the musical interlude and Kylie Minogue’s musical number are particular highlights, but then there is the quiet social realism of a drained father dealing with the nuanced quiet pain of his daughter not quite fitting in with her friends. Carax’s cinema has violence and exuberance, hilarity and giddiness, but it also has moments of true human feeling.
Of course, some will be put off, and when I saw the film at the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year, there were many dissenting voices. In fact, the film was one of the most divisive entries. However, as a sheer exercise in pushing the boundaries of what you can get away with, even if some think he went too far, I would rather go too far with Carax than stick to the comfort zone of our present cinematic environment.