Chances are that you've never seen anything quite like "Holy Motors," Leos Carax's farcical but deeply felt odyssey through modern Paris (and his first feature in almost thirteen years — you can read our review from Cannes here). At a New York Film Festival press screening for the film, Carax chatted with critic Amy Taubin and took questions from the audience, but those looking for answers to his deeply mysterious concoction will be left disappointed. Such is "Holy Motors."
When asked about where the film came from, Carax was surprisingly forthcoming. "It started out of my rage of not being able to make films," Carax shot back. "I was supposed to make a film in London and that didn't happen. The idea was to shoot it very fast, which didn't happen because we had trouble finding the money." Later during the same discussion, when Carax was talking about the influence of author Henry James on the movie (there's a sequence in "Holy Motors" borrowed whole cloth from 'Portrait of a Lady'), the filmmaker revealed that the British production was set to be a modern day adaptation of "The Beast in the Jungle," a James novella that's largely considered one of the author's finest works. Carax paused for a beat and then said, "I don't think I'll ever do that."
"Holy Motors" charts the course of one "actor" (frequent Carax collaborator Denis Lavant, in a jaw-dropping series of performances, including a continuation of a character the two developed for the omnibus film "Tokyo") who inhabits many different roles in a single night in Paris. But don't tell Carax that the movie is about filmmaking — a notion he disagrees with. "It's not about cinema," Carax grumbled. "The language of the film is cinema. I see it as a kind of science fiction with more fiction than science. It's a world not too far from our world but where it could seem, in one day, to tell the experience of being alive and in this world." Carax later elaborated on the sensation he was going for: "In one day, if [the film] succeeds, you're supposed to see all the feelings and emotions you're supposed to experience in a lifetime."
Carax's movies are often known for their lush cinematography (particularly 'Lovers on the Bridge'), but "Holy Motors" marks the first feature the director has shot digitally (on the RED Epic, for the tech nerds out there). This was not a decision the director willingly embraced. "I had no choice. I had to give up film. Which of course is sad but that's how you live," Carax explained. "You have to abandon stuff all the time in order to survive. I'm not against cinema it's just that it was imposed on us and it's still ugly and nobody knows what to do with it or how to deal with it."
Part of the reason he had to embrace digital photography was because his longtime cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier passed away. Carax suggested it's not worth fussing with film unless you have a really great partner (he said that they were "brothers"). "Unless I have that relationship again, it's so much work, that if you don't have the right person, it's not worth doing," Carax said. "But the way with this film or the film I did in Tokyo, it's fast, not much money, and I never look at the dailies. Because if I looked at the dailies I would stop making the film or remake everything."
One of the many surprising aspects of "Holy Motors," is the performance of Australian pop star Kylie Minogue as another "actor." She sings, she emotes, and it's one of the most nakedly emotional moments in the entire gonzo enterprise. "I knew it would be ghost-like – like two ghosts meeting. Then I thought of a song. I didn't know who would play that," Carax admitted. The suggestion for Minogue came from an unlikely place. "But this film I was supposed to make in London I had trouble casting the woman in the film. Claire Denis mentioned Kylie Minogue and I remembered that when I was looking for this woman. So I met Kylie Minogue that way." That's right folks: the director of "White Material" suggested the singer of "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" to Leos Carax. Let's just luxuriate on that for a minute, possibly while listening to "Come Into My World." Okay, good.
One of the other major characters in "Holy Motors" is, of course, the city of Paris itself. And while it occasionally takes on the dreamily romantic version seen in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," Carax seems reluctant to embrace that slant. Instead, he's pretty fed up with the famed City Of Lights. "The last twenty years I've tried to make all my projects away from France. But I've only made one film in Tokyo," Carax explained, the frustration evident in his speech. "I kind of hate Paris. After my other films fell through, I knew that to make a film fast I would have to shoot in Paris on digital." The act of making "Holy Motors" renewed his interest in the city. Sort of. "Actually I rediscovered Paris a bit while shooting this film," Carax added. "I still like bridges in Paris. That's about it."
In fact, much of the Q&A involved Carax shooting down wild theories about "Holy Motors" – no, the Merde character has no connection to birds; there's only one "Eyes Without a Face" reference (an actress from that film appears in "Holy Motors" and at one point dons an eerily familiar white mask); no, the film is not about class warfare ("This is why I shouldn't do Q&As"); and while he'd rather not deal with actors, he had to, given the profession of the main character. Carax came across as a fiercely intelligent and creative man who loved making movies but isn't that crazy about selling them.
At one point Taubin brought up the fact that "Holy Motors" could be read as a kind of love letter but also an obituary to traditional cinema, or, in her words: "an act of celebration and mourning." Carax, unsurprisingly, had some profound thoughts. "It's a miracle cinema exists. It's a miracle it was invented," Carax said, sounding awestruck. "The primitive power of cinema had to deal with this huge machine, three cameras at a time. I still think, when a camera would follow a man, you had the feeling that it was god watching him. If you had the same shot today on YouTube, you won't have this feeling. But that's okay. Cinema has always had to reinvent itself to find that power again."
"Holy Motors" opens in New York on October 17th, and begins to expaned nationally on November 9th and 11th.