How, though, can we still talk of art, if the world itself is turning cinematic, becoming “just an act” directly controlled and immediately processed by a television that excludes any supplementary function? Cinema ought to stop “being cinematic,” stop playacting, and set up specific relationships with video, with electronic and digital images, in order to develop a new form of resistance and combat the televisual function of surveillance and control.
—Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to Serge Daney: Optimism,
Pessimism, and Travel” (1986)
Leos Carax begins his new film Holy Motors with three images which, taken together, suggest a view of cinema being coaxed back into life.
An audience sits in a cinema, unmoving, with eyes closed as if asleep. Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotograph images of a male body in motion flash onscreen, a ghostly relic of the first transformations of time and movement into cinema. And, then, Carax himself arises from his bed in a dim harborside hotel room, puts on his sunglasses, lights a cigarette, and, still in his pajamas, fumbles along the wallpaper until he finds a hidden doorway that leads him to the balcony of a mysterious movie theater.
This last image is significant, even heartening, for Carax has been in some state of hibernation for much of the last decade. Once seen as the great successor of French cinema, friend of Garrel and Godard (in whose King Lear he has a small role), the leading figure (alongside Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson) in an ad-hoc movement of baroque, pop-art cinema known as the cinéma du look, Carax spent most of the 1990s living down his disaster-plagued, massively over-budget 1991 masterpiece The Lovers on the Bridge. In 1999, he delivered his grim riposte to a French culture moving steadily Rightward with Pola X, a deeply personal adaptation of Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, Melville’s equally peculiar follow-up to Moby-Dick, a novel of incest and ruin. And then, a decade in the wilderness, which saw only an occasional short film, numerous false starts, and, last year, the death of his partner Yekaterina Golubeva.
During this period, Carax’s appearances were rare gems: a small role in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, a short trailer for the 2006 Viennale that shows the director quitting smoking by shooting himself in the head, and Merde, the middle chapter for the omnibus film Tokyo!, a pitch-black study in abjection about a hideous, homicidal, yet strangely bathetic sewer-troll who eats flowers and money, and professes a general dislike for innocent people. At the time, it was difficult not to see this as a kind of warped self-portrait—Carax’s films are all, quite openly, self-portraits, with the wonderfully acrobatic actor Denis Lavant as his perpetual cipher—the image of a forgotten, rejected figure wholly out-of-step with the polite society he lives among.
It is strange to think that—with this sudden return and with many of his contemporaries working in a kind of pervasive, globalized Hollywood—the once-derided Carax is probably the only filmmaker of his generation who still matters. Holy Motors is in many ways his most bizarre work, at times his most deliberately surreal. On the surface, with its appearances by Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, singing a tune co-written by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, it seems almost haphazard in comparison to Mauvais sang’s playful classicism, The Lovers on the Bridge’s Vigo-esque euphoria, or Pola X’s inexorable plunge from grandiosity to austerity. But in many ways, Carax’s new film is also curiously calculated and serene, especially in its final acts, when the extremities of its earlier scenes give way to a profound melancholy, a set of earnest rituals that reenact the scenes of death and regret. If the cinéma du look was always an emphatically Mitterand-era cinema, a well-funded commodity for a grown-up, calmed-down, and upper-middle-class Left, it is high time for Carax to return to answer this with a film, at once angry, absurdist, and elegiac, that heralds the arrival of a post-Sarkozy era.
The deep personal stakes that Carax has in this political and cultural shift are evident in Holy Motors’s reassertion of his tendency toward autoportraiture. The film finds Lavant posing in many guises—rich man, beggar woman, motion-capture actor, doting dad, accordionist, assassin, victim, dying man, a white-haired Derrida doppelganger, and, yes, Monsieur Merde—as something of a performance artist/hitman, “many and no one,” ever in search of new personae, actors in search of an author. (At one point, Lavant even adopts Carax’s wardrobe: his hat, his frumpy jacket, his dangling cigarette.) The film has a kind of videogame scenario of levels, stages, mutations of identity, and even an inherent purposelessness—Lavant’s chameleon cruises around in a cavernous limousine (chauffeured by Eyes Without a Face’s Edith Scob, in rare comic form), arriving in various locations around Paris to perform his strange pantomimes for no one in particular.
Answering the mysterious images of its prologue, Carax’s film suggests a world in which cinema itself has not quite disappeared, but rather dispersed into the atmosphere, soaked into the very fabric of modern life so as to become everywhere but imperceptible. “In the beginning,” Lavant laments, “cameras used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now we don’t even see them at all.” But if cinema now seems dissipated—wizened and out of sight—we are also faced with the pervasive tyranny of the image. The cinema is dead, but it is everywhere—in every room, street, car, alleyway—but we are insensible to it.
Invoking Brecht, Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar insists that he performs his acts solely for “the beauty of the gesture” in a world in which the function of the body itself is increasingly mechanized, simulated, virtualized. In this way, Carax’s film evinces a nostalgia not just for a pre-digital cinema, but for a pre-digital world, in which the body still retains some physical weight, some heft. Even so, for Carax, cinema has always existed as a kind of interface between the virtual and the physical, a medium through which the ephemeral is given a hard permanence and the body becomes mythic. And that body has usually been Lavant’s, impossibly acrobatic, yet hard and compact, a physical presence that, for many years, Carax has likened to that of Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Charlie Chaplin, Michel Simon. Through Lavant’s many costume changes in Holy Motors, his many deaths and rebirths, the actor’s body on screen seems to answer the promise of Marey’s images, time and motion made physical.