The Return of Leos Carax

Holy Motors—one of the best movies of the year—will make you long for the movies the French auteur never made.

Leos Carax's Holy Motors.
A sensation at Cannes this year, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors would suggest a career revival, if it didn’t feel so valedictory

Courtesy Pierre Grise Productions.

The savior of French film at 24, a has-been at 31, a wandering auteur now in his 50s, Leos Carax has had a career as convulsive and tragic as his movies. L’amour fou in all its forms has been his great subject, the ecstatic coup de cinéma his abiding aspiration. Has any working director conjured up more epiphanies in as few hours of running time? Strewn across his movies are slivers and set pieces that grasp for transcendence: swoony, love-soaked soliloquies, loopy digressions into the absurd, choreographed arias of pop bliss.

But we should use the term “working director” advisedly. Since 1984, Carax has made five measly features, a victim of bad luck, bad publicity, busted budgets, and his own uncompromising sensibility. Now with Holy Motors, his first feature in more than a decade, Carax has made a spectral and dolorous movie about the worn-down artist in midlife, a project that he admits was born out of a decade of false starts. That it happens to be a visionary work—one of the best movies of the year—only makes us yearn for a filmography that never was.

Jean Luc-Godard said that all you needed to make a movie is a girl and a gun. For his first movie, Carax didn’t even bother with the gun. Boy Meets Girl (1984) was essentially a string of grace notes patched onto a wisp of a plot. In his first appearance as Carax’s alter ego, Denis Lavant plays Alex, a heartbroken filmmaker who wanders the Paris night and stumbles upon a man breaking up with his girlfriend over the intercom. The rest of the movie tracks Alex as he drifts toward the woman, Mireille (Mireille Perrier), a suicidal actress with sad Falconetti eyes.

Carax’s indifference to story may test some viewers’ patience—the movie can be static when not ecstatic—but Boy Meets Girl is that rare accomplishment: a debut with a fully formed voice. In debt to masters old and New Wave, Carax sprinkles the movie with close-ups out of Griffith, dance numbers out of Godard, a party out of Fellini. But his eccentric personality holds it all together: a half-cocksure, half-diffident blend of cool and pathos, with a streak of fatalism. The precocious film got terrific reviews and prompted revered critic Serge Daney to pronounce “that the cinema will go on, will produce its Rimbauds in spite of everything.”

As if overcompensating for his debut’s absent plot, Carax abruptly immersed us in a world of intrigue in his next feature. In the terrific Mauvais Sang (1986), a shadowy syndicate seeks to get its hands on a serum, locked away in a lab, that will cure a mysterious AIDS-like disease spreading fast. They hire Alex (Lavant again), a card sharp whose late father was the best operative in the business. He says yes—but only after getting a glimpse of Anna (Juliette Binoche, never lovelier), the gangster’s gal. Carax being Carax, the heist recedes into the background as the movie settles into one long, languorous night of Alex’s wooing of Anna. (Seduction is too strong a word—there’s something beguilingly innocent about Carax’s love stories.) It peaks with one of the most exhilarating pop moments in movies: lovelorn Alex’s mad dash down an empty city street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”

One of the underappreciated gems of 1980s cinema, Mauvais Sang elaborates on the hallmarks of Carax’s work introduced in Boy Meets Girl. It is at once a valentine to its leading lady (Carax was then dating Binoche), a master class on the close up, a lilting urban nocturne, and a treatise on the annihilating power of love. With its evocations of Chaplin and Godard’s Alphaville, Mauvais Sang was another tribute to Carax’s forefathers. But seen afresh today, we also glimpse traces of the filmmakers who followed: the pell-mell cinema of Arnaud Desplechin, the stylized compositions of Hal Hartley, the drenched romanticism of Wong Kar-wai.

The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) was the last entry in the so-called “Alex” trilogy—and the folly that would nearly finish Carax. This time Lavant’s Alex is a vagrant who lives on the Pont-Neuf, Paris’s oldest bridge, closed for renovation. Into his life wanders Michèle (Binoche), a newly homeless artist who is going blind. But this City Lights homage takes a dark turn: Lavant’s tramp, instead of helping Michelle regain her sight, hides news of the cure from her, afraid that he’ll lose her to her old life. (In Carax’s movies, love isn’t just self-immolating—it burns down everything else.)

That synopsis doesn’t hint at the movie’s bigness. To achieve his vision, Carax had a replica of the Pont-Neuf and the surrounding area built in the south of France. Made for a staggering 160 million francs in a time when French movies cost less than 3 million, the movie went way over schedule, nearly bankrupted three producers, and was a preordained folly when it finally came out in 1991. It flopped at the box office and was dismissed by French critics, offended by the boy wonder’s hubris. It didn’t see the light of day here until 1999.

The rejection deeply wounded Carax—and unfairly buried what now stands as one of the great city symphonies of our time. Its disastrous production notwithstanding, The Lovers on the Bridge is the work of a more mature filmmaker. Grubbier and looser, it sheds the insecurity that lurked behind the stylization of his previous films. Again the idols loom large: Renoir and Vigo are the obvious touchstones (the breeze of Boudu blows through these frames; the barge from L’Atalante drifts by). But it is one scene that affirms its place in cinephilia. As the fireworks for the French bicentennial illuminate the starless sky, a wasted Alex and Michelle dance on the bridge, Paris theirs for a night. It’s the most ecstatic celebration of a city since Manhattan’s overture, a movie moment so delirious you don’t know whether to dance along or genuflect in its presence.

In some ways, The Lovers on the Bridge marked the end of Carax’s career, or a version of what it could’ve been. In the two decades that followed, only one feature and one short would see release. Pola X premiered at Cannes in 1999 tagged as the auteur’s long-awaited comeback. A crepuscular and conspicuously joyless film that transposed Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities to present-day France, it was recognizably the work of a major artist—but a minor entry was hardly acceptable after an eight-year hiatus. Critics mostly yawned; the only noise it made was for its incestuous plot and the unsimulated sex scene between stars Guillaume Depardieu and Katerina Gollubeva. It would take nearly another decade for Carax to return with “Merde!” his contribution to Tokyo! (2008), a trio of shorts from Carax, Bong Joon Ho, and Michel Gondry. That too came and went with little notice.

That two-decade lull makes the existence of Holy Motors all the more miraculous. A sensation at Cannes this year, the movie would suggest a career revival, if it didn’t feel so valedictory. It begins inscrutably: A white stretch limo cruises the Paris streets, carrying an enigmatic passenger (Lavant) named Monsieur Oscar, who has several “appointments” to make. At his first, he gets out by the Seine dressed as an old hag and begs for change. At his next, he is driven to a motion-capture lab where he acts out a sex scene with a contortionist—all translated into a CGI rendering of a dragon-like creature in action. The job after that has him playing a gnarled monster—Lavant’s character in “Merde”—who kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes) and brings her to his underground lair. And so the appointments go.

If Carax’s previous movies were valentines to his leading ladies, Holy Motors can be seen as a gushing tribute to the incomparable Lavant, a former acrobat whose athleticism, grace, and mutability are the movie’s true subject. As Monsieur Oscar goes from one assignment to the next, he flits across genres: fantasy, domestic drama, gangland action, musical. Enacting an entirely new life with every project, Oscar emerges as a metaphor for the film artist—one who might be on his last legs. In the movie’s world, it’s revealed that Oscar is a performer of sorts for a voyeuristic entertainment project. (There is talk of the small cameras that capture each vignette he walks into.) “Do you still enjoy your work?” an old man—perhaps a studio exec?—asks as Oscar peels off another layer of makeup. “The beauty of the act” is what keeps him going, he says. That’s in the eye of the beholder, of course, the old man says—but what “if there’s no more beholder?” Oscar replies. Carax, who has confronted that very real prospect in his career, leaves the question unanswered.

“You need to feed your eyes for your dreams,” says Alex in Mauvais Sang. Holy Motors seems a response to that dictum; it’s as if Carax was gorging us on imagery in case it takes him another decade to make a movie. As its Lynchian overture suggests, the movies remain the center of Carax’s dreams. At once demented and world-weary, Holy Motors is the work of a mad virtuoso whose mood has soured, but whose passion remains undimmed. It’s l’amour fou again, but this time for Carax’s oldest love: the movies.