Holy Motors – review

Some may find it deeply irritating, but Leos Carax's dreamlike and richly allusive movie is destined to become a classic

Now 51, the French enfant terrible emeritus Leos Carax is an immensely talented and highly self-conscious filmmaker who has made a mere five features in the past 28 years. His nom de plume (or as he might put it, using a term popular once among the Nouvelle Vague directors he admired, nom de caméra stylo) is an anagram of the first two parts of his real name, Alex Oscar Dupont, and the title of his last film, Pola X, made in 1999, has a similarly solipsistic origin. Pola X is an acronym derived from the French title of Herman Melville's novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities, which Melville wrote to cope with the failure of Moby-Dick. Carax transposed it from 19th-century New England to late-20th-century France because he saw parallels between the popular and critical rejection of Moby-Dick and his own masterpiece, the 1991 movie Les amants du Pont-Neuf, which went wildly over budget.

All Carax's pictures hitherto have been about young people choosing to live outside conventional society. And except for Pola X, which starred Guillaume Depardieu and was set in Normandy, they took place in Paris and starred the raw, wiry, somewhat sinister Denis Lavant (always playing a character called Alex), an exact contemporary of the director. With Holy Motors Carax has returned to Paris and Lavant, but they are both older, though scarcely more accommodated to bourgeois life except in the parodic manner with which the film begins and ends.

It is, I think, a marvellous movie, vivid, witty, varied, puzzling, though not without its longueurs, and it uses the cinema itself as a metaphor for the journey of life, which some level-headed Anglo-Saxon audiences may find deeply irritating.

The film begins with Carax himself waking or dreaming in the early hours, and opening a door in the wall of his bedroom that is papered in the form of a dense forest, a reference, so Carax tells us, to the first lines of Dante's Inferno ("Midway on our life's journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost"). He finds himself in the circle of a cinema, looking down on an audience of dead people in the stalls. The first historical image we're shown is one of the studies of animal locomotion made in the 1880s by the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey. The picture's last image evokes Cars, the Pixar company's CGI-animated movie. We are thus looking at the world through Carax's movie-educated eyes, and focusing throughout on Denis Lavant, who leaves home in the early hours to drive into Paris from his white art deco house shaped like a ship. He's formally dressed like a businessman, and one of his daughters calls from the roof: "Travaille bien" ("work hard"), a comic reference to Claire Denis's film Beau travail (aka Nice Work), a reshaping of Melville's Billy Budd set in the French Foreign Legion, in which Lavant played the Claggart figure.

By an odd coincidence, Holy Motors and David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (a version of Don DeLillo's novel) were both shown in competition at Cannes in May, and in each a strange figure makes an allegorical urban journey in a white stretch limousine, in one case across Manhattan, in the other around Paris. Lavant's chauffeur is a handsome, middle-aged woman (Edith Scob, famously the permanently masked daughter of the demented scientist in Georges Franju's classic horror film Eyes Without a Face). She's called Céline, a hefty nudge to inform us that we're to be taken on a symbolic Voyage au bout de la nuit. Rapidly we discover that Oscar, the Lavant character, is a man of numerous aliases and identities, who with great dexterity transforms himself in the back of his car, using an actor's dressing-room mirror.

As the cinematic and literary references (to everyone from Cocteau via Buñuel to Godard) are scattered around town like confetti at a wedding or ticker tape at a hero's motorcade, Lavant/Oscar becomes (among other incarnations) an old crone begging beside the Seine; a menacing avenger from a Feuillade silent serial; a crazed, barefoot troublemaker in an ill-fitting green suit kidnapping an American model during a photo shoot and carrying her away as if he were Quasimodo or the Phantom of the Opera; a hitman hired to kill his doppelgänger; a father concerned for his daughter's safety; and the cheerful leader of an accordion band performing in a candlelit church.

He's Lon Chaney, the movie's man of a thousand faces, and Sherlock Holmes, the master of disguise. He's also possibly the manipulated anti-hero of some kind of game on CCTV. Why does he do it, he's asked by an interrogator (the chilling, charismatic Michel Piccoli making an indelible intervention). "For the beauty of the gesture," he replies.

What is certain is that he's getting old, heading towards the grave, and images of death and decay are everywhere – a spectacular suicide at night in central Paris; a romantic reunion with an old lover (Kylie Minogue) at a once grand, now abandoned art nouveau department store; a superbly staged sequence in a cemetery (possibly Père Lachaise). Borrowing from many sources, Carax's film has an atmosphere all its own, a combination of the mysterious and the lucid, of troubling nightmare and pleasing reverie. It's a happy return to the cinema for Carax, and likely to prove the classic he has been hoping to make.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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