Leos Carax’s latest film will never get an audience in the United States. That’s a shame. Holy Motors is the best zombie film of the past, or perhaps of any decade.
Holy Motors ends with a dedication. “For you Katya,” we read next to a photograph of Carax’s girlfriend. Yekaterina Golubeva, who committed suicide in 2011 after a long battle with depression, and Leos Carax were not married. Carax did, however, adopt her third child, Nastya Golubeva Carax, who was born in 2005 and who also appears in Holy Motors, the importance of which will become clear later in the film.
The film opens in a theater. The audience is watching a movie we can’t see. They’re bored, on the verge of falling asleep. We switch to what appears to be a hotel room. A man wakes up. It’s Leos Carax. He’s alone. The mood is one of loneliness, sadness. He walks slowly across the hotel room towards a door, and exits into what we think is the backyard of a house along the coast. We hear the sound of gulls, waves crashing on the beach, a ship’s foghorn. It feels peaceful, refreshing. Carax has left a sparse room furnished only his own depression, we think, in order to reconnect with nature, and to heal. Soon, however, we realize we’re not at the beach. We’re in a movie theater, the very same movie theater we saw in the first frame. Carax has reconnected, not with nature, but with a bored public who doesn’t understand his films. What’s more, we also realize that even if Carax had walked out onto the beach, we would still be in a movie. We’d still be watching a film of the ocean, not the ocean itself. Seeing the ocean wouldn’t be any more “real” than hearing it, and we’ve already heard it. In other words, Leos Carax has broken down the wall between his film and its creator, rolled us up into his own grieving mind, into the closed circle of his under appreciated genius. If we see the world through his eyes, he insists, we must also feel his pain.
The star of Holy Motors is Dennis Lavant, the great French actor who has long been Carax’s muse, and his alter ego. Most Americans have never heard of this guy. Trust me on this. He’s as good as Daniel Day Lewis, maybe as good as Brando, one of the greatest pure physical actors of his (my) generation. If you have seen him, but haven’t seen him since “Lovers on the Bridge” in the early 90s, you probably won’t recognize him in the opening scene (don’t worry you will soon enough).
We shift from the movie theater to a palatial, and gloriously modernist, house out in the exurbs (or whatever passes for exurbs in France). Dennis Lavant is Mr. Oscar. At first glance, Mr. Oscar is a banker, a stock broker, a politician, or any aging member of the French ruling class. He says goodbye to his daughter. He gets into his stretch limousine. He picks up his cell phone. We quickly realize something is not right. The elderly white haired female chauffeur looks familiar. It’s Édith Scob, an actress who, 50 years ago, starred in the classic French horror film “Eyes Without a Face.” The space is too large to be the inside of a limo, even a stretch limo. It feels more like a tour bus, or a dressing room in a film studio.
Then it hits us. If Carax took our sense of space away from us when he hypnotized us into thinking we were only the beach only to be ushered into a movie theater. Now he’s giving it to us back. What’s more, Mr. Oscar isn’t a banker. He’s an actor, a freelancer, a man with 9 assignments, characters, to play from sunup to sundown, and he has to learn his parts in the limo, something only a man who lives, eats, sleeps, and breaths cinema can really do. Mr. Oscar will drop into various scenes in Paris, which may be real, or which may be film sets – we’re never quite sure – and play roles that range from homeless beggar, to cyborg, to flesh eating monster, to suburban “dad,” to gangster, to, at long last, Leos Carax himself. We also realize that Leos Carax has pulled a fast one on any pseudo-intellectual, cinophile who might be pontificating about how the film is about “difficulty” or that it “resists interpretation.” The jokes on them. Anybody who actually enjoys movies, and storytelling, also realizes that Mr. Oscar isn’t only an actor. He’s a zombie. Leos Carax, Dennis Lavant the French actor, and Mr. Oscar, the fictional actor in Holy Motors, are all Leos Carax. And they’re all zombies. Carax, after his girlfriend’s suicide, has not only become a zombie, he’s cast himself as the star of his own zombie film.
As we share the day with Mr. Oscar the actor, we realize that he doesn’t exist. He lives only when he’s in character. Acting, for Mr. Oscar, like cinema for Leos Carax, is the process by which he wakes himself up from the dead. Holy Motors is not “holy” at all. It’s 9 separate satanic births. Each time the great Dennis Lavant breaks out of his coffin and digs himself out of his grave. In his first role, he’s cast as a miserable old beggar woman on a bridge, a sequence drenched in aching nostalgia. We remember Lovers on the Bridge, and Juliette Binoche, the most beautiful homeless girl who ever lived. We remember Dennis Lavant as a young man, so madly in love that all of Paris becomes one big fireworks show, so obsessively in love that he’s willing to keep the object of his desire from surgery that will save her sight (so she doesn’t see how physically ugly he is). Now that’s all gone. All we have left is a miserable old beggar women.
In Mr. Oscar’s second role, we hark back to Carax’s second movie, Mauvais Sang. Many Americans are familiar with the scene in Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha, where Greta Gerwig runs through the streets of Chinatown in Manhattan to the sound of David Bowie’s Modern Love. A few of us remember the original, maybe the best “love at first sight” sequence in the history of cinema, Dennis Lavant, after meeting the young Juliette Binoche, running through the streets of Paris, leaping, dancing, doing back flips, all to the sound of the same song. Now he’s a middle aged man playing a cyborg in a science fiction movie, tramping along on a treadmill, machine gun in hand, the only thing remaining from the famous sequence from Mauvais Sang the pattern on the wall. Where in Mauvais Sang, Lavant fell in love with, but didn’t have sex with Juliette Binoche, here we see him engaging in dreary, emotion free, alienating cyber sex with some nameless six foot tall Russian contortionist.
The digital age, Carax is telling us, has killed the passion of cinema, an idea that’s only reinforced by the next scene, a photo shoot in Père Lachaise, where the names on all the tombstones have been replaced by links to websites. Mr. Oscar has now become Monsieur Merde (Mr. Shit) and he smells like it. If you doubt that Holy Motors is a zombie film, this scene will clear up any doubt in your mind. Monsieur Merde looks, and smells, as if he were already dead. As he traipses through Pere Lachaise, people scream, run. He attacks random passers by, causing terror and chaos until he comes to a creature even more dead than a zombie, a high-fashion model, Eva Mendes, decked out in exotic garb and a blank expression. The photographer, an over the top geek named Harry, who quickly shifts his attention from the beautiful, but vapid Mendes, to the ugly, yet gloriously weird Monsieur Merde. “Hasselblad,”he says to his pretty blond assistant (Annabelle Dexter Jones, the daughter of Mick Jones, lead singer of the 1970s rock band Foreigner), giving her his Canon 5d, switching from digital to analogue, bits and bytes to film as he shifts from the beautiful and empty model to the ugly and fascinatingly alive monster. Monsieur Merde winds up biting off the fingers of the photographers assistant and dragging the model back to her cave, where he wraps her in a burqa, and where she continues to display no emotions at all.
Next we see Mr. Oscar as a “dad” picking up his unhappy daughter from a party. The girl is played by Carax’s real life step daughter Nastya Golubeva Carax. She’s upset, insecure. Mr. Oscar can’t give her any good “fatherly” advice. And where’s her mother? It’s a minor scene if you don’t know the back story, achingly sad if you do. The girl’s mother had committed suicide only the year before. Carax is wondering why he couldn’t save her, why he couldn’t say anything that would have lifted her out of her depression. In role number 4 Carax lifts us out of our depression. Dennis Lavant manages to pull off something almost as good as the “Modern Love” scene from Mauvais Sang, a gloriously loud, raucous cover of “Let My Baby Ride” by a band full of accordion players, a 2 minute piece of music that could wake the dead.
This is the film’s high point. And we don’t want it to end. Sadly it does. Mr. Oscar then plays the role of an assassin, a dying old man, and another cyborg who kills a businessman at an outdoor cafe, a man who looks strangely like Dennis Lavant did in the very first scene of the film. That the film is winding down doesn’t hurt the story, however, because Mr. Oscar is also winding down. He’s getting tired. Eat, the chauffeur tells him, but he can’t. Finally, at long last, the wall between Dennis Lavant and Leos Carax collapses. His chauffeur runs into another limo. Inside is another woman, played by Kylie Minogue, the Australian pop singer. Like Yekaterina Golubeva, she married to another man. Like Yekaterina Golubeva, she has children by another man. Like Yekaterina Golubeva, she’s suicidal. She sings Mr. Oscar a song about the past. Her husband returns. Mr. Oscar leaves. She climbs up on the roof of her building. We see the Pont-Neuf bridge, the setting for Carax’s most famous film. We know what’s going to happen. But it’s stretched out. She tries to get her footing. We feel the height she’s about to drop. We sense her fear yet her determination to go through with it. She jumps.
The illusion is over. Carax, through sheer willpower, has broken open the coffin of his depression and scratched his way out of his grave. But now it’s time to go home, to go to sleep, to experience the death any creative artist feels when he must separate himself from the creative process. Leos Carax, a sad, middle-aged man, has given us two hours of cinema. The only way he can live on is if he gets an audience. Why not see Holy Motors instead of vegging out like a zombie in front of Walking Dead?