The Beauty of the Act
A retrospective of filmmaker Leos Carax
In the opening scene of “Holy Motors,” Leos Carax’s most recent feature film after a 13-year hiatus, the audience is confronted with the image of the director himself: Carax wakes up in his pajamas in a room next to his dog peacefully dozing on the bed. As he tours the room with the slow and cautious steps of an apprehensive explorer charting new territories, he stops in front of a wall. He begins to feel around the wallpaper in the dark. He finds the hole he is looking for, plugs in his right middle finger, which is nothing more than a metal apparatus with a cylindrical end, and pushes with all his might to force open the hidden portal, which opens to a theater in which his film is playing.
Carax made a similarly surprising appearance—albeit after two of his films, and with neither pajamas nor the metal middle finger—at the Carpenter Center Lecture Hall for the Harvard Film Archive’s Carax retrospective “Overdrive,” which took place during the last two weekends of February. Carax is notoriously averse to public appearances and speaking with press about his work, so it was a rare privilege to hear the director speak in depth about his work.
When asked about this peculiar prelude to “Holy Motors,” Carax candidly replied that after such a long pause, he simply had to assert his presence, confirm on film that he is still alive. This is not to say, he continued, that “Holy Motors” is a film about cinema. In fact, Carax stressed that he has a more important topic on his agenda that fuels his creative endeavors. In line with his definition of cinema as “the human body in action,” as he said at the HFA, Carax’s oeuvre seeks to restore the power cinema once had in the time of the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès—when a large, bulky machine’s projection of a train arriving at a station was a captivating spectacle for audiences unfamiliar to this visual attraction. Taking after Étienne-Jules Marey, who dissected the corporeal motion—running of a naked man, the galloping of a horse, the pole-jumping of an athlete, second by through the use of his “chrono-photography,” Carax aspires to revive the fascination with the human body and motion by putting them under a new light.
Perhaps the word he used most often during his brief presence at the Carpenter Center to describe his recent work is “reinvent.” Beginning with one of his earliest feature films, “Mauvais Sang” (“Bad Blood”), Carax showed his debt to both the French New Wave and the precious era of the silent cinema through segments that are,in the words of Harvard Film Archive Director Haden Guest, who also spoke at the event, “theatrically simple [and] richly cinematic”—the magic tricks the male lead Alex plays throughout the film, for instance. Carax’s thirst for invention appears under the guise of the indeterminacy of genre—“Mauvais Sang” mixes the angst of a coming-of-age story with the leftovers of a gangster movie, adding a healthy dose of science fiction with the plague of an imaginary sexually-transmitted disease.
In “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” (“The Lovers on the Bridge”), the reinvention of space is what is at stake. Carax constructs a replica of the Pont Neuf—a bridge thousands of Parisians and tourists tread everyday—in the suburbs of Paris, only to close it for renovation, so that it becomes home to a homeless trio. On the other hand, “Pola X,” Carax’s following feature, is based on Herman Melville’s “Pierre: or, the Ambiguities” and follows a young heir’s discovery of his self-avowed life’s purpose: leaving his luxurious life in the countryside to look after his long-lost half-sister, Isabelle, who has been living on the streets. The first couple of unusually bright and uplifting (and deliberately pretentious) scenes, which feature a country château, golf, and horseback riding, quickly gives way to dark cityscapes of Paris’s immigrant and industrial neighborhoods. Pierre, already famous as a writer under the pseudonym “Aladdin,” attempts unsuccessfully to give a new direction to his writing career in strange, unfamiliar, and often trying environments.
Likewise, reinvention is at the heart of “Holy Motors,” Carax’s 2012 hit, which was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival. A “performer,” Oscar (Denis Lavant)—whose name is a combination of the last syllable of “Leos” and the first of “Carax”—shuttles between different lives in a white limousine, rushing from “appointment” to “appointment.” In this limousine fully equipped with an actor’s makeup mirror, Oscar can transform himself into anyone, including an Eastern European beggar woman, a motion-capture actor, a red-haired outcast by the name of “Merde” (French for “shit”) who eats nothing but flowers and cash, or a dying benevolent patriarch whose niece owes him much of her prosperity. In between these episodes of “performance,” there are fairly short but poignant scenes of preparation (scrambling for props, donning wigs, putting on makeup) for these roles in transit, which lay bare the artifice of acting in particular.
There are very few episodes when Oscar is simply himself outside the boundaries of the limousine. In one of those rare moments, Lavant shares a scene with Kylie Minogue, starring in the role of another white limousine-driven “performer,” Jean, who used to be together with Oscar 20 years ago. They mount the elegant Art Deco stairs of the now-deserted La Samaritaine, a department store undergoing reconstruction to reopen as a luxury hotel, while Minogue mournfully sings, “Who are we? / Who were we / when we were / who we were back then?” The overwhelmingly beautiful high and low angles of the ascent are accompanied by the presence of mannequins’ body parts inside La Samaritaine, as if to dramatically emphasize the fictional fragmentations of the couple in their personal and professional lives. “Holy Motors” is thus also a hesitant prodding of the darker side of reinvention—namely, the impossibility of retaining one’s past after cycles of re-identification.
If we are to go by Carax’s maxim as stated at the retrospective, that “we have to reinvent ourselves at some point; if we don’t, we stop living,” Carax’s work may be a cinema of the reinvention of the self, space, and medium, but its strength is primarily rooted in its ability to demonstrate that this process is anything but straightforward, explicable, or even vaguely graspable. No wonder when the man with the winemark (Michel Piccoli) asks Carax’s alter-ego Oscar in what keeps him going, the answer is just an enigmatic “la beauté du geste” (“the beauty of the act”), but more specifically the beauty of gesturing, mimicking, moving—or simply, being.
—Staff writer Gökcan Demirkazik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.