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?
Denis Lavant (Merde), as seen in Leos Carax’s "Merde" from "Tokyo." Photo courtesy of Liberation Entertainment.
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!
If you're looking hard, you can get lost in my films. But kids don't get lost.
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.