The surprise art-house hit of the past year, Leos Carax's deliriously entertaining Holy Motors has reignited interest in the director's earlier work — four of the most personal and inventive films in contemporary French cinema, which receive their first screening in Toronto in over two decades in this rare retrospective.
Disguised as a shuffling old bag lady in the first of his many astonishing incarnations in Leos Carax's Holy Motors, the shape-shifting Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) mutters "No, nobody loves me, nowhere. But I'm alive anyway." The segue from self-pity to resilience captures the nature of Carax's own fortunes, in a sporadic career that has taken the director from cinéaste maudit to enfant gris, from the director's euphorically received first feature Boy Meets Girl (declared the finest French debut film since Godard's Breathless) through its cultish follow-up Mauvais sang, to the protracted calamities of Les amants du Pont-Neuf and Pola X — the first now celebrated as an unfairly traduced masterpiece, the latter as a forerunner of the New French Extremity of Gaspar Noé, Philippe Grandrieux, Bertrand Bonello et al. — and finally to last year's enchanting Holy Motors, a film as ecstatically received as his first.
That Monsieur Oscar repeatedly expires and lives again reminds us that rebirth, restoration, and renaissance are tropes that recur in Carax criticism. The twenty-two-year-old prodigy who moved, nouvelle vague-style, from writing about movies in Cahiers du Cinéma to making them, declared at the outset of his career that cinema was a sclerotic old man who needed "to be reborn. My only way of working is to believe that everything has been done, and to believe that by seeing the silent movies again and learning a lot from them, you can find new forms and ways of telling stories." Certainly his editor at Cahiers, the legendary critic Serge Daney, thought Carax capable of remaking and redeeming the cinema by returning to its source: Boy Meets Girl, he declared, proved "that the cinema will go on, will produce a Rimbaud and a 'Poet at Seven Years' against all odds, that it will start again at zero, that it will not die." Three decades later, the critical plaudits for Holy Motors frequently employed the same language of cinema's revival: Dennis Lim called it "a glimpse of [the] possible regeneration" of the art film, Manohla Dargis "cinema reloaded," Jean-Michel Frodon "Carax's renaissance." Somewhere, then, between Monsieur Oscar and Jesus Christ, Carax seems capable of endless resurrection.
Critics initially corralled Carax with compatriots Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson as exemplars of the so-called cinéma du look, which, as the name suggests, subjugates narrative to virtuoso visual display. Yet where Beineix and Besson have increasingly succumbed to the spurious and uninvolved, Carax's cinema remains passionately romantic and deeply personal, even private, as evidenced by the fact that he endowed the protagonists of his first three films — all of them played by Lavant — with his actual given name, Alex. Moving through these moody, lugubrious tales of outlaw amour fou with the compact body of an acrobat, the carp-lipped, heavy-browed Lavant sometimes seems imploded by adversity even as he can suddenly detonate into manic action; his spastic dance to David Bowie's "Modern Love" in Mauvais sang became that generation's "Singin' in the Rain." Returning, weathered but no less wiry, in Holy Motors, Lavant now adopts the name of Carax's adolescent dream prize as the infinitely mutable Monsieur Oscar — "Alex" and "Oscar" both being subsumed into the anagram "Leos Carax" (got it?).
Yet while Lavant/Alex/Oscar has become as closely identified with Carax as did Jean-Pierre Léaud/Antoine Doinel with François Truffaut, just how much these morose oddballs reflect their maker's own nature remains moot. By turns coy and cryptic, self-revelatory and cleverly clandestine, Carax seems to throw up a smokescreen (quite literally, for the incessantly puffing director) between the critic and his work by implying autobiographical import to his films' every facet, then just as quickly denying any such simple analogy. ("I like big things — it's easier to hide behind," he told Dave Kehr.) But biographical parallels pertain perhaps more than the director likes to allow, in his supporting characters (are the hostess in Boy Meets Girl and her compatriot dowager in Mauvais sang digs at his American mother's social circle?) no less than his protagonists. Though Lavant, close to Carax in both age and physiognomy, will always be typed as the director's alter ego, it is in the novelist Pierre of Pola X that one finds the purest expression of Carax's (for him, failed) search for authenticity and nobility in art, though the stocky, blonde Guillaume Depardieu seems as distant from Carax's attributes as any actor imaginable.
"I don't hide my influences," Carax once said, somewhat redundantly. Even more cinephilic than this summer's other movie-mad auteur, Jacques Demy, Carax flaunts his homages to favourite films with promiscuous exhibitionism, while decrying the critics who check off his "references," a word he hates. (Speaking of Demy, with whom Carax has shared Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, many of the films in our Demy sidebar Paradise Regained — Bresson, Vigo, Minnelli, Cocteau and Godard — could do double duty for Carax.) Indeed, any given review of a Carax film tends to turn into a roster of influences and homages; an early review by a French critic described the director's lineage as "from Lumière to Eisenstein by way of Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Straub, and, especially, Godard." Though directors tend to tame their tendency to wanton homage in older age, Holy Motors reveals a Carax as impulsively cinephilic as the younger self who opened Les amants du Pont-Neuf with a classically Godardian car-as-weapon sequence, closed it with a magical salute to Vigo's L'Atalante, and sandwiched sequences modelled on MGM musicals between. From the motion studies of Jean-Etienne Marey to the hushed sanctums of Stanley Kubrick and (there they are again!) the musicals of Jacques Demy, Holy motors along on a macadam of homage. In a single instance, Monsieur Oscar's chic chauffeur evokes both Carax's favourite author (her name is Céline) and a formative filmic influence: Edith Scob, the actress who plays the unflappable driver, made her name as the heroine of Georges Franju's horror classic Eyes Without a Face (shown last summer at the Cinematheque), which she blatantly suggests (never references) by at one point donning the same mask she wore to hide her facial disfigurement in that film.
In the masque that is Holy Motors, Monsieur Oscar describes the impetus for his existence of unending performance as, simply, "the beauty of the act," which suggests that his feats of disguise have become existential beaux gestes, his "true self" the sum total of his ceaseless impersonations. In the cinema of Leos Carax, again resurrected after a too long hiatus, the beauty of the act remains the eternal return of cinema's past, its poetry transfigured into credo by one of its most devout believers.
— James Quandt
Special thanks to Claire Le Masne & Sarah Arcache, Consulat Général de France à Toronto.