Leos Carax doesn’t like to make eye contact. Typically hidden behind a pair of sunglasses, the soft-spoken French director is notoriously unkind to the interview process. But Carax, who burst onto the arthouse scene with his inventive ’80s cinematic wonders “Boy Meets Girl” and “Mauvais Sang,” then followed them with the batty romance “Lovers on the Bridge” and the Melville adaptation “Pola X,” has created enough energized cinema to prove he’s got plenty to say.
The latest example is Carax’s “Holy Motors,” the Cannes competition feature that has been making the rounds on the festival circuit and recently landed at the New York Film Festival. Re-teaming with “Lovers on the Bridge” star Denis Lavant, Carax tells the bizarre story of a chameleonesque man who plays dozens of characters in the span of a single day — from the creepy sewer creature Lavant originally played in Carax’s contribution to the anthology film “Tokyo!” to an elderly man on his deathbed, an old beggar woman and an athletic actor covered in motion-capture diodes.
Carax’s most cryptically provocative achievement, “Holy Motors” is scheduled to hit New York theaters October 17, followed by a wider release in November. While in town for the NYFF, the director sat down with Indiewire at the Soho Grand to discuss the new movie and his future ambitions.
This is your first feature in 13 years and certainly your most ambitious work. How did you expect people would receive “Holy Motors” when it first premiered at Cannes?
The film was imagined very quickly. I thought it would be really difficult, that it would be too strange for people.
Were you nervous?
No. I just thought, “There’s really nothing I can do right now.”
It’s no secret that you aren’t crazy about doing interviews and especially loathe being asked to interpret your work. But “Holy Motors” is a movie that forces people to try to understand it.
I mostly don’t submit to talking about my work because I would like another talk about real life. I don’t think men were meant to be interviewed.
But men have been talking about art ever since they created it.
Men talk about art, and artists make art, but should artists talk?
How did you get around the need to explain “Holy Motors” when you were in earlier conversations about the movie with investors and producers?
I started making films when I was young, and at the time it was a compete bluff. I had never made a movie. I had studied films but I had never been on the set of one. When I made my first film, I had hardly ever seen a camera before, and I was a young man when I arrived in Paris from the suburbs. At the time, I didn’t talk much. I was very shy, so the bluff served me. I was telling people that I had no money, and that I knew how to make films, but I had no proof. I was lucky to find people who believed in me. Very few filmmakers are good at talking about their work, very few artists are good at talking about their work.
Still, it’s impossible not to feel the need to interpret “Holy Motors” and get the sense that it’s being fueled by big ideas. When you watch it, are there ideas that speak to you that you feel are worthy of analysis?
I spent so little time imagining the film. The whole thing took two weeks. It was a race. I didn’t watch my dailies, I didn’t read exactly what I was doing. I only went over it at the editing table. Although I don’t make films for anybody, I do make films, therefore I do make them for someone: I make them for the dead. But then I show them to living people that I start to think about while I’m editing — who’ll watch them? So I start to get more reflexive at the editing table. Why did I imagine this science-fiction word? I did invent a genre that doesn’t exist. But I don’t have the real answers.
But what does the totality of the film say to you?
In this world I invented, it’s a way of telling the experience of a life without using a classical narrative, without using flashbacks. It’s trying to have the whole range of human experience in a day.
You mean the notion of life being a succession of different attitudes and tones. The film also deals with virtual reality in several ways. In the Internet era, identity has slippery definition.
I’ve always been interested in invisible worlds, and I like to visit digital worlds, you know, any world that’s imposed on us. I’m not against the virtual world, it’s fascinating, but I don’t like the way they try to impose it on us. It’s a thing imposed by rich countries. They want a new experience, they want action, they want to be responsible for our lives and be responsible for what we do, and to encourage every aspect in the republic, even for kids still in school. It’s a big political system. I have nephews who are between the ages of 12 and 25 years old. They have trouble experiencing life. The virtual world is not the enemy. The pioneers invented a world they believed in, but the followers must follow that world whether they believe in it or not.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the film as science fiction since I know you have an affinity for the genre. In a recent profile in the New York Times, you expressed an affinity for “Chronicle.”
I don’t know, I’m not a cinephile. I watched a lot of films when I was young.
What sci-fi films appealed to you then?
I like tragedies, whether they’re sci-fi or something else, but I can’t say I know much about any genre in particular. My second film, “Mauvais Sang,” was science fiction. With “Holy Motors,” the way I imagined it, I had to go play with genre a bit because it’s supposed to be a sci-fi world. It’s not a real job. This character is supposed to go from life to life traveling in a limousine. I didn’t want every life to be the same degree of reality. Some are more fantastic and others are more realistic.
Denis Lavant plays so many different types of characters in the film. How did you get him to provide the character types that correlated with the images you had in mind?
Well, I’ve worked with him for almost 30 years now, although we don’t know each other in real life. We’re not friends or anything. We don’t have dinner together. We don’t really talk. I explain to him where he’s going to walk, how he’s going to dress. Although the film has been imagined for Denis, I didn’t have to know too many things. I imagined the film for him, but there were two or three scenes where I thought he couldn’t really play the part.
Probably the father-daughter scene and hotel scene with the dying man and his young niece. He became a greater actor while I wasn’t making my films. I don’t know what happened to him in real life or in his work or both that made him an actor who could play any part, but now he can. When he was younger he was great but he was mostly physical — like a dancer, a sculptor — but now he can portray very human emotions.
I enjoyed seeing the Merde character that you first brought to life in the “Tokyo!” anthology film. But in that film, the character was very specifically meant to represent a certain kind of monster in that society. Initially you said you wanted to make a sequel entitled “Merde in USA.” Instead, you put him in “Holy Motors.” What kind of symbolic representation does he have here?
The only part of “Holy Motors” that predated the project was the part with Merde. It was supposed to be the opening scene of “Merde in the USA.” It was supposed to be here in SoHo, but it didn’t happen, and I wanted to work with Kate Moss again.
That part of the film does look like SoHo.
Well, I was going to create a post-9/11 feature, with all the kind of fear and silliness of it, and all the regression we all went through, down to everyone who was turning backs on babies — whether the government, Bush or Sarkozy — and also the terrorists themselves, how they managed to make us afraid of it happening again. I think it’s the first character who I see as equal to Denis: All the films I made earlier where Denis was called Alex were kind of imposed on him. I imposed these characters on Denis because I did it conventionally with language and cultures, but here we shared this character.
What about the other characters in the film? What sort of symbolic value do they have?
The first one [I imagined] was actually not Merde. It was the older woman, because I pass these women in Paris every day. That was an issue when I made “Lovers on the Bridge” because I was young and I didn’t know anybody in Paris. These old women were cross-eyed and were wandering down the street. Now, when I pass these women, I feel so amazing that they’re still alive, and there are a few of them. They all dress the same and look the same. Some of them are really sick. It’s impossible to think that anyone could be more foreign than these women living in this city, and that’s all that’s left of their lives. I thought at first maybe I’ll do a documentary on them and how could I relate to them. But then I realized I would never make this documentary because I would never be able to finish it. Instead, I made it a complete fiction. I made her played by Denis, and I put my words into her mouth. That’s how it started, and then the rich banker came after that. The rich banker transforms into a beggar. That idea of transformation was invigorating. I wanted to make this movie for a long time because people can be amazing: Sometimes they’re morbid and erotic and they want to be seen differently on the outside, and there’s kind of a virtual world there. It’s a life for rent for a few hours. That’s how it started.
I also found the structure of the film to be very operatic. All of your films have a close relationship with music.
I hope to make a film one day that will be music. I wanted life in music, that is what I wanted here.
Hence the accordion sequence.
Yes. I think music is the most beautiful part of life, but music doesn’t like me…
As a once-aspiring guitarist, I can relate.
I was one, too!
So we all know that there’s a reference to Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” in the film when Édith Scob puts on the same mask she wears in that film. When people ask you about this reference point or others, you try to avoid talking about it. But why? It’s such an explicit reference.
I don’t see it as a film of references. I mean, with the mask, I put it at the end of the shot, but it felt right because of the way the film was going. Towards the end of the production I made this mask that she put on when she says, “I’m coming home,” but I almost regret it now, because people keep asking me about it. I knew the things I was going to do with Denis, like I knew I was gonna do the thing with the treadmill and the virtual background. But the mask was the only thing in my film that was really explicitly arbitrary.
I know at least one 11-year-old who has seen the film and understood it. If children can understand “Holy Motors,” maybe it isn’t as much about film history as some have suggested. What do you think?
That’s the only good thing about traveling with the film. The film still exists in space and time. The further I go from home or from people who are obviously going to go see it, especially in New York and festivals or in Paris or a few other rich cities, people get the film. Most people get it. Someone says it’s so simple a kid would understand it, so bring your kid. but that’s the way I feel about my films: They’re very simple. If you’re looking hard, you can get lost in my films. But kids don’t get lost.
What kind of movie could you possibly make after this one?
I would like to make a superhero film. It takes years to do the superhero thing. You know, this guy suddenly has superpowers and he’s all of a sudden fighting the world. What’s nice in “Chronicle” is that when they do discover their powers, and they fly, they fly for a long time. When you have Spiderman flying, there are like two seconds of a shot, and it costs hundreds of millions for this one shot in 3D.
So Leos Carax is making a superhero movie?
Maybe. I don’t know if that will happen. I would like to make it un-American, but that doesn’t mean it has to be French, either.
You’ve said before that you don’t consider yourself a filmmaker. Has “Holy Motors” changed that?
No. I really don’t. It’s hard to call myself a filmmaker.