The power of cinema lies in its ability to transport you into another world, into another life. You go to into a theater, take your seat, the lights dim, and suddenly you’re given the keys to embark on something completely unknown, to bid yourself adieu and leave your fate into the hands of another. You fall down the rabbit hole into a different world and for these few hours, you bear the pain and the weight of the lives of those onscreen, assuming an identity with infinite possibilities. And in the end when the credits role, you go back to your normal life. Nothing may have changed fundamentally—just because the protagonist has murdered their family, doesn’t mean you’ll soon be carted off to jail—but if the film has served it’s purpose, you’ll never walk away unscathed.
And with Leos Carax’s new science-fiction epic, Holy Motors, by the end of the film you’re left sitting in your seat baffled by the myriad lives you’ve just walked through, in awe of the power of cinema as an experience that is sacred and fantastic. A film that both explodes and implodes, a masterpiece of clever wit and visual wonder, Holy Motors is just as heartbreaking as it is hilarious—and you’ve never seen anything like it. Walking out of the theater, I found myself thinking, Why haven’t we seen something like this before? Where has this type of film hiding? But perhaps it is because a film such as this requires not only an incredible about of imagination and fury but a great deal of fearlessness. Holy Motors was “born of rage” by Leos after he was consistently unable to get funding for other features he wanted to make—thus becoming the brain child of a rebellious genius with nothing to lose.
Is the film a meditation on the different masks we wear as humans; is it an outcry for the takeover of technology over the organic; is it a plea for human connection; is it a virtual nightmare where our future lives only in the eyes of the screen; is it a love letter to cinema in all its forms? Or, is it simply a story about what it means to be alive in a world where human experience is on the verge of extinction? In one scene of the film, it states that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and with Holy Motors, how you view the beauty of the film is entirely up to your own obsessions and predilections. It may be a delicate web to maneuver your way through, but it is malleable to everyone’s own perception. There are moments when you cannot help but gaze in amazement, not only of Leos’ clever genius but of Denis Lavant, who plays Monsieur Oscar (as well as the nine other roles he assumes throughout the day), who delivers an astonishing performance in which he disappears into each of his roles with the intensity of a madmen. Lavant has a physicality that haunts, with a body sculpted like the recurring images of athletes crono-photographed by Marey that appear sporadically throughout the film.
In its simplest form, Holy Motors is an odyssey through the body and soul that takes place over a single day in modern Paris. Monsieur Oscar is chauffeured by limousine, traveling to and from his various “appointments,” venturing from one life to the next. Throughout the day we see Monsieur Oscar transform into these differing worlds in which he plays everything from a lonesome gypsy crone on the streets, to a finger-eating troglodyte, and an assassin sent to kill his own doppleganger—just to name a few. The genre shape-shifts with every scene, never becoming static, while allowing the moments to play out in all their bizarre glory. With a cast featuring Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, and most notably French actress, Edith Scob, Holy Motors is a surrealist dream in which Leos doesn’t feed the audience anything and yet, the satisfaction is undeniable.
Yesterday, I was joined by three other writers and lovers of cinema to speak with Leos about the evolution of his work, the miracle of cinema, and courage as lesson to be learned.
You directed Denis Lavant now over the course of three decades, how has your process of working with him evolved over the years?
Mostly it evolved between the first film and the second film. I don’t know Denis in real life. We live like 500 meters apart in Paris but we’re not friends and I’ve never had dinner with him and we don’t talk much. But I was lucky, it was a miracle to find him for my first feature. I was looking for this boy for a long time—I had to post-pone the film for a year because I couldn’t find the boy—but finally I found Denis and made it. I was aware after the film that I had not used him enough in his physical capacity. The first film I made with him was called Boy Meets Girl, which was very static. So I made a second film with him which was much more physical and then the third film and then I didn’t shoot with him for sixteen years or something. Then we made a film in Tokyo two years ago where I rediscovered him and thought he had just become much greater actor. At the time, he was great but limited. Even ten years ago we could have never made this film together. He could have played parts of it, like the motion capture part, but other scenes, he couldn’t play it—like the scene with his daughter or the scene where he’s dying. So when I imagined this film, because this film was born out of the rage of not being able to make other projects, it was imagined very fast. I think I did all of it in two weeks. I knew the film would be shot in Paris for little money, it would be shot in digital, it would be shot with Denis, and I would not watch the dailies—that’s the only things I knew. And then those two or three scenes, I imagined them for Denis but I didn’t think he would be able to do them, it won’t be good. But I thought, Okay let’s try, and I was very surprised. I think now there’s nothing he can’t play.
Was there one of the scenes that sparked your initial idea to the make the film? I’d heard you had this image of a theater full of people and you didn’t know if they were sleeping or dead.
I’m not a writer, so I don’t write a script from A to Z. I start usually with two or three images and two or three feelings and then I try to edit these feelings and these images together. There was this image of the public, you don’t know if they’re dead or sleeping. And there was obviously this limousine that had been attracting me. I first saw them in America and the neighborhood I live in in Paris is a Chinese neighborhood and they use them to get married,—strangely, because I find them very morbid, they’re more like coffins. But I was very intrigued by these limousines, I thought they were a very great vehicle for today because they’re quite virtual—they want to be be seen but you can’t see inside them and people feel very protected inside them—they play a role. You don’t buy them, you rent them, it’s like a rented life, like avatars of themselves whether they’re playing to be famous, to be rich for a day or an hour. I thought they were very interesting and they’re very cinematic.
And also, I had this image of the old beggar which is the second avatar for Monsieur Oscar after the rich banker. I pass these beggars, these gypsy beggars everyday in Paris. They’re all the same and they have their backs completely bent and I’ve always felt, how can you be more alone than them, than this? What’s left of life, they’re still alive, what’s left of life? And I thought, there’s no one more foreign in Paris more than these women, I’ll never be able to be in contact with them. I thought maybe I’d make a documentary about that, about one of these women and me: we pass each other on this bridge and I try to relate to them and then I have to go to their country to understand their story and how it happened. I always wanted to make documentaries but my fear is if I make a documentary, it will have no end, my whole life will be consumed. Because how do you end a documentary? Even a fiction film is hard to end; I end it because of money reasons but I could keep editing it and shooting it forever. So I went the opposite way: I thought, No if it’s not going to be a documentary, this one is going to be complete fiction, it’s going to be played by an actor and I’m going to put my words into the mouth. I guess I associated this idea of playing roles with the limousine and put them together.
The movie is completely different than anything I’ve seen by you. It seemed a lot freer than your other films and I’m just wondering how not getting funding played a role for you to do something this different?
The film was born of that rage. It was imagined much quicker than any other project I had. Within a few weeks. I think if it’s strong and if it feels free, it’s because of that rage and that fast process. It took us a year to find the money, I wanted to shoot it right away but it was imagined that way and shot that way a year later.
If someone were to come up to you on the street and ask you if they should devote their life to cinema, what would you say?
I wouldn’t call it devotion. I don’t think you should devote your life to anything. But I feel it’s really a miracle that cinema exists, that it had it be invented. It’s an invention and no other art is an invention, it has a machine. It needs machines. It needed machines and now it needs computers. It needs motors and in french you say “Motor,” like in English you say, “Rolling,” before the director says, “Action.” So I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema and to discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life and death from another perspective or angle or many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island; it’s a beautiful place. But it has nothing to do with that. I like cinema, I don’t like cinephilia. I don’t care so much about films, I care about cinema in terms of place, this place where you can see. It may be arogant but I do believe that I live in this island; it’s worth living there.
Do you feel any kinship with any other French directors of your generation?
No. But I’m not looking for it. I started young and as a young man I was quite alone. I came to Paris from the suburbs when I was 17, I didn’t know anybody in Paris. I didn’t study films, I had never been on a shoot before I made my own films. Asking for money was just saying, “Trust me, I can make films.” And after that, I did interviews and stuff so I guess there was just kind of pride of being alone. So I paid the price of this pride and I benefited from it, it gave me strength but at the same time, it made me really alone in the industry. But that’s my story, I can’t say it’s good or bad but that’s the way it was. I don’t really see myself as part of a generation. I don’t care about the idea of French filmmakers or Chinese filmmakers, I’m a director and sometimes it happens I was born in France but that’s it.
Nowadays where it seems like so many people are just living their virtually and without human connection, adopting these identities it felt like the film really echoed that, especially in the fact that no matter which life he hoped in and out of, no matter what he did there’s no consequence. And we’re living in this time where we can act out these fantasies without consequence, is that something you were thinking about making the film?
Well yeah, the film is about our actions and the notion of experience and how important it is. Life is experience, experiencing life today, do we still want to experience? Do we still want to be responsible? Do we still want to write our own life? I’m interested in virtual reality but it’s not something I want to impose on my life. I like to be inhabited by different worlds but I don’t like to be imposed whether it’s this world or the virtual one, I don’t want anybody to impose it on me. The film is not against anything, it’s just saying that we’re mutants and that every generation more so than any other generation, we have to fight like a mutant has to fight. It’s not nostalgia and it’s not stupid hope for the future, it’s just fighting as always. The risk is and I see it in young people, the lack of courage. We’re lacking courage. Filmmakers are lacking courage but we as people are. I think they should teach courage in school to kids–whether it’s civic, political, philosophical, poetic courage, or physical courage even. They should be taught in school because if we have courage anything is possible.
Did it take you a lot of courage to make this movie? All your movies are very personal. They have a lot of elements that come from you. I was really touched by the father daughter scene. How much of it was inspired by your personal life with your daughter?
There’s a special courage in filmmaking but I do what I can. When I make a film, it’s the only possible film I can make when I’m making it. It happens that Denis and me are the same age—he has three daughters, I have one daughter—so in films you put all your fears, all your question marks and all your fears. Obviously, I think the relationship between father and daughter is the most beautiful most possible relationship but also the closest to all the horror tales, I mean the father can be a monster very easily. That’s my fear, being a monster but it doesn’t have to do with the actual relationship with my daughter I hope.
What do you think, in your capacity as a filmmaker, is your relationship with cinema history?
Well, I started making films at the same time I discovered film, which rarely happens. Usually it’s two different times in your life. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but that’s how it happened. So I watched a lot of films from age 16 to 24, a lot of silent films, Hollywood films obviously, and New Wave films but I think I stopped watching films at the time of my second film. I felt I’d paid my depth of love for the cinema. I needed to go my own way. I never think I’m a cinephile, I never think in terms of films. I do live on this island called cinema but I never think terms of genre. People see lots of references in this film, I don’t. There are one or two but as references, I hope they serve. I think the best viewer for a film like this is someone who doesn’t know much about cinema, that’s why when I travel with the film, the further I go usually the closer I am to people who see the film in a way it was imagined which is not a cinephile. Hopefully if the film is successful, it’s about the experience of being alive today. Cinema permits us to see things like ghosts, but I don’t care too much anymore about cinema’s history.
You put humans and machines and animals all on the same level as these things that were alive—why is that something you wanted to show?
I thought—now I’m saying I thought, I didn’t think anything. Now I think that I had to create a kind of science fiction world—there’s not much science in it but there’s a lot of fiction—where this job would exist, where he could travel from life to life in a limosuine. It’s not that I’m interested in actors or actors’ work and life or whatever, but it made it possible to, in a day, to have him do this. Otherwise, I would have needed a classical narrative or flashbacks; this permitted, in one day, a large range of human experiences—grieving, love, loss, joy. And the film was born of these two opposite feelings: the fatigue of being yourself and another reinventing yourself, which you need to do a few times in your life. So I invented this science fiction world where animals, humans, and machines had a kind of solidarity to fight this virtual world where there was no responsibility. Because I like motors, I like machines, I like action. And that’s how cinema started, it’s a machine filming a horse, it’s a machine filming a man running. You still love to watch human bodies, you also like to watch landscapes or things we’ve created: buildings, cigarettes, guns, cars, but mostly we love to watch human beings and that’s action. We love to watch people walking, running, fucking. So that’s how the title came, “Holy Motors.” Holy would be the soul part and Motors would be the body: body and soul.