I was a little taken aback by the ebullient social media response from this year's Cannes Film Festival to Leos Carax's first feature in over a decade. Aside from the usual deplorable over-familiarity—I don't recall if anyone actually stated "Oh, that Leos," but, might as well—the reports of its imaginative ebullience gave a weird sense that those of the assembled who chose to laud the picture were also ready to coronate Carax as the new "roi du crazy." And the Leos Carax I personally value is not really an inordinately "wacky" guy.
So I was pleased and relieved to find Holy Motors a largely downbeat, even mordant film. Its opening scene, in which lead actor Denis Lavant has a metal key in the place of one of his fingers, Motors is not particularly "surreal" or hallucinatory. Particularly once one settles in with its conceit, which is not presented in an insistently enigmatic fashion. Lavant's character is referred to throughout by his chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob) as "Monsieur Oscar" as she drives him in a ridiculous white stretch limo (any resemblance to DeLillo/Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is likely coincidental but not entirely unpropitious) to a series of "appointments" in which Oscar, in a variety of outfits and makeup contrivances, emerges from the limo to "act" and interact with people who may be ordinary Parisians or who may be other "actors." One of Oscar's most memorable incarnations is as the "Merde" monster that Lavant previously played in Carax's droll installment in the 2008 omnibus film Tokyo! (the last picture Carax made; his prior feature is 1999's Pola X). Here he rampages through a Pere Lachaise festooned with headstones reading "Visit My Website" and eventually kidnaps a model in Cocteau-esque makeup played by Eve Mendes. In a sense, yes, there is something funny about an overhead shot of the legendary Parisian cemetery underscored by Ifukube's Gojira themes, but in a larger sense, there's something not at all funny about it. That larger sense being, perhaps, among other things, that of a hurt and spiteful grown-up child reluctantly sharing old enthusiasms. Holy Motors has been touted as a celebration of or love letter to cinema, but throughout all of its allusions I senses something like an exhausted renunciation. Oscar's day of appointments wears on, and his assignments take in murdering a doppelganger (or two), upbraiding a socially awkward teenage daughter (the way a cramped, constipated Sparks song abuts a breezy Kylie Minogue hit on the soundtrack in this sequence speaks volumes), dying old in bed, and reminiscing with an old love who may or may not be "real" (played by the aforementioned Minogue, in a very affecting performance). And all the while he's drinking more and more, falling into depression and disillusionment (when he looks in his folder and sees his assignment to play Merde, the virtuosic Lavant, I mean Oscar, mutters "Merde" and I don't think he's just noting the character); he even gets a visit from a superior (played by the legend Michel Piccoli) who wonders whether the performer's heart is in it anymore. And at the end, Oscar is delivered to a new home with a new family, and the constitution of that family, while again kind of funny on the surface of it, can also be read as a very determined "fuck you" to the entire prior enterprise.
The love letter aspect is confirmed for some by the fact that at the beginning and end Carax intercuts into the picture some motion-study footage by 19th-century cinema pioneer Étienne-Jules Marey; to them, this and other references (Scob's iconic role in Franju's Eyes Without A Face does not go visually unremarked-upon, for instance) suggest a nod to continuity. To my eyes, the statement these things suggested was "This is so OLD, I am so TIRED of it, but it's ALL I'VE GOT." Of course I could just be projecting here. But throughout the movie, which certainly has its ups and downs (I thought its coda, which nods to It's A Wonderful Life, of all things, was kind of a disaster), I kept thinking, "this is the work of an artist who can't figure out which story he wants to tell, or even if he has a story to tell anymore, and this is the only thread he can grab on to." I did not read the movie's press notes until after the screening I attended, and I was gratified albeit aomehwat saddened to discover therein that I wasn't ENTIRELY wrong, that the impetus for Holy Motors lay at least in part in Carax's mounting frustration at being unable to get project after project off the ground.
And so, in short, and for better and for worse, un vrai film Carax. And not funsy at all.
UPDATE: I am informed, in typically friendly and helpful fashion by a commenter below, that the figure with the metal key in place of a finger is in fact Carax and not Lavant. And Carax is indeed credited in the film as "the sleeper," so I stand corrected, and by all means do disregard all of the above, which is clearly now nothing save verbal fluff.
FURTHER UPDATE: But seriously, the distinction as pointed out is significantly thematically pertinent. The sleeper with the key for a finger awakes in the bedroom of an airport hotel; all of Carax's unrealized projects over the years have been outside of France. The door-in-the-wall that his finger-key unlocks leads into a cinema, and it's in that cinema that, it appears, the film that constitutes the remainder of Holy Motors (opening with a very beautiful Tarkovsky-homage shot, incidentally) is screening. So there's almost literally the sense of the picture as a projection/dream of Carax.