Denis Lavant’s tour-de-force odyssey across the Parisian stage sees Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an anarchic love story, romancing the silver screen.
The Lives Of Others by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
First it was Pont Neuf, now it’s La Samaritaine. Leos Carax has a penchant for derelict landmarks in the centre of Paris it seems. And while there’s a voyeuristic thrill in lifting the skirts of the dilapidated Art Nouveau department store, Holy Motors is a long awaited return to form (and to Paris) for Leos Carax. Reassembling Denis Lavant and the Ville Lumière, along with the delightful additions of the magnificent Edith Scob as Céline and the combined musical talents of Kylie Minogue and Neil Hannon, Carax’s film reprises many of the ideas of Les Amants Du Pont Neuf. Performance, blindness and fleeting relationships. And if Lovers On The Bridge was the then twenty-something director’s vision of love, Holy Motors is the older Carax’s riotous hymn to cinema.
Following his kinetic, fire-breathing acrobatics in Les Amants Du Pont Neuf, Carax reveals again the miracle of cinema that is Denis Lavant. Performance put centre-screen, as he travels from one stage to the next, each role requiring a different selection of greasepaint and prosthetics, each ordained from powers on high in a black dossier awaiting fulfilment on the back seat. The limousine functions as a rolling backstage, stuffed full of costumes, props and wigs, and transforming himself from crooked Russian beggar to family father, via CGI movement artist and the riotous Monsieur Merde, Monsieur Oscar puts the same unwavering professionalism into each of his performances as soon as he steps out of the car.
The world is a stage and Monsieur Oscar’s entrances and rendezvous form part of a mystifying logic known only to his employer, represented by the suitably everyman Michel Piccoli. Monsieur Oscar’s appointments are however ordered according to a cinematic spectrum charting a gradual descent into the demimonde of the imaginarium; from the performance-for-performance-sake of the Russian babushka to the CGI stunt-double action-hero of the movement artist, where movement is alchemised into image, culminating in the computer-generated vision of copulating dragons.
Monsieur Merde unleashes Lavant’s mad energy, a performance in front of a real but unknowing audience, and the hitman’s encounter with Théo complicates matters further, both roles incorporated in the same body – scalped, dressed and stabbed in the neck to look identical – a deadly performance in front of the mirror. The hit is perhaps the capitalist purpose behind this luxurious lifestyle of self-indulgent performances – assassins who don’t exist, fading in and out of reality in a variety of guises, a web of lives. And in the case of the banker, one character is played by a succession of lookalike actors – set-up, confrontation and climax, a triumvirate of acts one, two and three. Reality and fiction collide, as Monsieur Oscar picks Angèle up from a party, is she in on the act, a willing participant? Or is she really his daughter, allotted a daily rendezvous with a clowder of fathers?
On-stage violence can’t hurt him, unaffected by either the stab to the neck or the shoot-out outside Fouquet’s. Don’t believe your eyes. But outside of the safe world of stagecraft, they’re human and vulnerable, and when Monsieur Oscar meets old flame Jean, it’s a backstage reality beyond the invisible proscenium walls. Kylie plays Jean with the short coiffe and charming un-French intonation of Jean Seberg in A Bout De Souffle, and it’s this scene at the centre of Carax’s cinematic universe that offers the most clues as to the why – a couple searching for endless new beginnings after a family tragedy. But it’s a wearying lifestyle too, and as Jean’s rendezvous arrives, it’s vital that Henry climbs the stairwell of the department store calling out for Jean and not her air-hostess persona Eva Grace, Jean falling from La Samaritaine’s rooftop in a bloody, broken heap.
It’s performance often without an audience, for its own sake, and no scene illustrates this better than the dying words of M. Vogon to Elise. It’s an extravagance of emotion that both enjoy, and as Monsieur Oscar rouses from the dead to make his next appointment, it’s abruptly truncated for another audience’s pleasure. Drama has turned inward, and this curious looking-glass Paris is a nightmare world in which the audience is anaesthetised. It’s Carax himself in Holy Motors‘ prologue who escapes from a sealed room with a prosthetic key-finger only to discover his audience sleeping, unaware of the Etienne-Jules Marey reels playing out in front of them, cinematic footage that predates cinema, filmed in the void with no-one watching, performance for its own sake.
Holy Motors is a very personal response to soporific cinema, a shocking and wilfully incoherent kaleidoscope of cinematic forms – tragedy, comedy, fantasy and New French Extremity – a cinematic fireworks show shocking audiences to sit up and take notice. The grand finale in the Holy Motors limousine shed of talking cars and Céline’s return home in a mask is utterly perplexing – an otherworldly backstage beyond the stage of stages we’ve just encountered. And the holiness of these dramatic motors – fictional cogs in the fabric of life is perhaps as strangely Christian as it is Bataillian – the monotheistic god of cinema and its final intoning in unison of ‘Amen’, or the sacred cinema of taboo – violence, sex and death. It’s a labyrinthine odyssey across a looking-glass Paris with only a cinematic thread to lead us out, but with such an energetic guide, it’s hard not to just surrender to being lost and believe in the miracle.
Holy Motors is released in the UK on 28th September 2012