The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
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Chloe Lizotte on Holy Motors
“We would like to live again.”
In translation, it’s the refrain of French singer-songwriter Gérard Manset’s “Revivre.” It’s tempting to call the song melodramatic: it’s belted more than sung amid deadly serious piano crashes, and it seems a lost relic of an abandoned era of crooners, especially out-of-time as a 1991 recording. Its meditation on mortality can feel embarrassingly naked to intrude upon as a listener, even in the context of the (final) emotional climax of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Yet Carax comes to the song because of this curious blend: because Manset’s unsparing sincerity transcends and justifies that anachronistic style, and because his lyrics are too elemental to obscure with irony or opaque poetry.
“That means…we want to live, again, the same things.”
Although no one would ever accuse Carax of taking a straightforward route into his material, Holy Motors is a film of fundamentals—not only of what it means to live, but also of how it’s possible to live. And in this way, it’s about what draws devotees back to cinema: its unique capability to immerse us into dreamlike visions, almost parallel lives. Holy Motors follows a man named Monsieur Oscar—the incomparable Denis Lavant—through a series of such worlds. Over the course of a single day, he travels through Paris in a white limousine driven by an agent-of-sorts, Céline (Édith Scob), to nine different “appointments”; in a sense, they’re acting gigs, but everyday life accommodates the scenes. The car, packed with costume trunks, is Oscar’s dressing room, and seemingly anyone could pop out onto the curb: he enters the limo as a banker, emerges again as an elderly female beggar, then slips into a motion-capture suit…all within the first fifteen minutes. As Oscar applies and removes sticky prosthetics between rendezvouses, reality and fantasy blur together, just as cinema’s hallucinatory immediacy can bleed into lived memory. Distinguishing what’s “real” is less important than the responses provoked by the film’s sights, sounds, and stories. And Holy Motors aims for nothing less than an expansive buffet of highs and lows, from the physical spectacle of the body at its most athletic to its withering away into decay; from the exuberance of anarchy and musicality to the irreparable ache of loves lost and mourned.
“Maybe walk the long road once again, reach out and touch the point of no return…”
From his earliest projects, Carax has embraced the history of cinema with exuberance, less like a name-checking student than someone overflowing with affection for the works that formed him. One can trace the cinephilic reality-slippage of Holy Motors all the way back to his debut feature, 1984’s Boy Meets Girl: Mireille Perrier’s character gets down to David Bowie as though channeling the Madison dance from Band of Outsiders, and later, a hood materializes on her head that makes her a dead ringer for Maria Falconetti’s Joan of Arc. Carax’s follow-up, Mauvais sang (1986), sees Lavant’s character deploying Méliès-style illusionism to cheer up his unrequited love (Juliette Binoche, Carax’s partner at the time). By adopting fantastical techniques from silent cinema, and, like his hero Jean-Luc Godard, leveraging sound and image as co-productive variables, Carax builds a visceral expressionism out of cinematic artifice. In practice, it doesn’t feel heady, but gleeful, seizing a kinetic freedom of possibility. One thinks of the fireworks display in The Lovers on the Bridge (1991), a pyrotechnic blowout in which Lavant’s and Binoche’s characters throw themselves about the Pont Neuf with total abandon, while the soundtrack leaps through about five different genres of music in three minutes. It’s not style for style’s sake, nor is it self-consciously slick; it’s a messy, reckless uncorking of inhibition. As only cinema can allow, Carax strives to render our wildest selves flesh.
“…and feel ourselves far, so far away from our childhood.”
Holy Motors, released in 2012, turns overtly elegiac for bygone eras: it’s Carax’s first film shot digitally, a compromise he wearily made so he could shoot cheaply after spending two decades struggling to secure financing for his work. (Pola X, from 1999, is the sole feature film he was able to make in the discouraging interim between Lovers and Motors.) “[The cameras] used to be heavier than us; then they became smaller than our heads,” Oscar laments to an ambiguous figure—seemingly a producer, but only credited as “the man with a birthmark”—played by Michel Piccoli, himself a living index of mid-20th-century French cinema. “So, sometimes I, too, find it hard to believe in it all.” But this sentimentality, called out by Piccoli’s character, doesn’t hold Carax back from the desire to invent—nor does it extinguish his sense of humor about the world turning to the cloud; in a graveyard scene, headstones hilariously read “visit my website.” Even as Carax’s formative masters recede into history, their spirits still drive Oscar to rove his plane of performance, observed by no visible camera other than Carax’s own. So if Holy Motors mourns a formative tradition of cinema, or tussles with the medium’s current lack of cultural centrality, it still locates a timelessness within its progenitors’ original impulses. There’s a solidity to Oscar’s practice that combats increasing digitization: on top of costumes and practical effects, Carax understands that the film, at points, needs to revel in Lavant doing gymnastics as only he can. Even Oscar’s limousine has a luxe, retro bulkiness, a ceremonial spaciousness that is suitably otherworldly.
“The time has not yet come to lie down and rest…”
The film is a one-of-a-kind showcase for Lavant’s range, which the “Denis Lavant x 11” credit should make clear. Oscar’s first few costume changes fix him in a cycle of metamorphoses, seemingly limitless, but the film becomes something new during the motion capture sequence—the only scene to explicitly take place in a studio, a sterile glass skyscraper. We watch Oscar exert himself physically: in this alien-seeming spandex suit, its motion-marking ping-pong balls glowing in the dark, he sprints as fast as he can on a crude treadmill/green-screen setup until he collapses. When a willowy scene partner enters (professional contortionist Zlata), the duo launches into a languid, choreographed sexual encounter; we watch the bodies, not the final animated sequence—until the last minute, when Carax unveils a ridiculously crude CGI-dragon coupling. The lurid grace of their flexibility calls back to clips of physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey’s silent shorts, which Carax splices throughout the film. In the 1880s, Marey was harnessing cinematography to break down the mechanics of movement, with filmmaking barely in its infancy; here, Carax taps into the cinematic fascination of watching bodies, and elegantly strips back the obfuscating technology.
“…We have to do what we love again, dive back into the liquid cold of these days, always the same.”
Once Oscar reaches this physical peak, his roles seem to indulge different aspects of his id. He reanimates his character Monsieur Merde, the infamous flower-, money- and hair-eating troll that terrorized Tokyo in Carax’s 2008 short Merde (translation: Shit, a third of the anthology film Tokyo!). While crashing a photo shoot, Merde chomps off the finger of a photographer’s assistant (“He’s so weird!” yelps her salivating supervisor, hoping to take Diane Arbus-esque photos of him), and then licks a trail of her blood up the armpit of a model (an unflappable Eva Mendes), whom he carts off to the sewers. Later, he’ll move away from lashing out against the culture’s vapid silliness; twice, Oscar becomes an assassin, only to shoot down doubles that he also plays. As the scene changes pile up, so does the metaphorical body count, as Oscar’s only constant is his shedding of skins. It’s a pathology based on frustrating disorientation: Oscar (and Lavant) is in his element when he is completely immersed in a character, but much like the sudden starts and stops on a film set, he’ll be whisked away right as he’s getting somewhere. While driving away from a conversation with a preteen daughter, which centers on the difficulty of accepting oneself, Oscar is steeped in emotional residue up until he turns a corner and encounters his limo’s headlights. The moment feels like reaching the edge of a video game level, or the wall of The Truman Show: continuity collapses, and Céline stands by, ready to drive onto the next rendezvous.
“Even if we’re cold, even if we cry—we still think of how we did not have time to finish the book that we started yesterday, while growing up.”
The world is always flying by behind Carax’s characters, regardless of how much they’re moving. When Lavant bounds, tumbles, and cartwheels down the street in Mauvais sang, the color bars of his backdrop blur into chaos, but he remains at the center of the frame. When Guillaume Depardieu’s character bombs down the highway on his motorcycle in Pola X, the forest whizzes by in the same way. The shot is echoed when Oscar barges forward on the treadmill before a fluctuating green screen: even as movement liberates these figures, they still appear stuck in place. Perhaps Oscar is locked in a cycle of compulsion, grasping for something that he can never quite reach. This exhaustive escapism and regeneration also seems a response to the clock ticking ceaselessly toward the end, as though Oscar is desperately collecting a breadth of lives at the expense of depth. Lavant can come to mind as a kinetic actor, but in a deathbed scene, he’s able to express a subtler side: although his lines, as written, are unbearably direct about his pain and uncertainty, he imbues them with a vulnerability of fear, a shocking frailty. As he wonders what the suffering is for, it’s hard not to think of autobiographical implications for Carax. He dedicates Holy Motors to the actress Yekaterina Golubeva, his wife, who died of a rumored suicide in 2011. Early in the film, his and Golubeva’s young daughter is glimpsed through glass, her face pressed to a window. As Oscar’s first character leaves her behind in a modernist mansion, it suggests Carax grappling with what he’s leaving behind when he goes to work, or what it means to immerse himself in this kind of storytelling at this point in his life.
“We became anonymous passersby, wild-haired, mussed, and deformed…”
What does it mean to have another face? A 23-year-old Édith Scob pondered this in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), in which her character’s father, an obsessive physician, puts her through experimental facial reconstruction surgery. “When I look at myself, it’s as if I’m looking at someone from the Beyond,” Scob’s character admits, trying to describe the lack of ownership she feels over her new appearance. It’s not a prolongation of her life, or a way of cheating death, but a betrayal of her own identity. To be alive is to commit to a face. One could say that Lavant’s Oscar is a proxy for Carax: the pen name “Leos Carax” is an anagram of “Oscar” and Carax’s given name “Alex,” also the name of Lavant’s characters in three earlier Carax features (save Pola X, in which he did not appear). Holy Motors is a surrender to shape-shifting: Carax envisions life as an endless state of unpredictable flux. We can’t help but transform depending on who we’re with and which spaces we enter, on-screen or off-. Taking escapism to its limit, it’s impossible to reconcile the “real” self with the “role”: Scob’s Céline, when clocking out at the end of the day, dons the very mask Scob’s character wore in Eyes, just when it seems she should relax into civilian clothes. Even the landscapes beyond the limo are not as they appear; a thermal camera captures the Paris Opéra as blotches of colors, a graveyard path from a dream of Oscar’s glitches as though melting. We grow restless with the mundane, tinting our vision with role-play and manipulations of perspective, but Carax most radically chases that lack of equilibrium wherever it will take him.
“We think we are at noon, but the day is already closing; nothing makes sense anymore, the dream is over.”
“Who were we, when we were who we were?” sings another limo-bound actress, played by Kylie Minogue, in Holy Motors’ brief foray into the musical genre. She and Oscar have a romantic history; they haven’t seen each other for more than 20 years. It’s not a question that will bring Oscar any peace to ponder, perhaps because his lifestyle, as we see it, can’t accommodate a personal life—he even rejects Céline’s continual reminders to eat between appointments. Yet certain scenes seem to push his buttons, including this one, as its unsettlingly naturalistic conclusion sees Minogue’s character, Eva, jumping off a roof to her death; the father/daughter scene is another. But he’s still moving, compulsively so. His process brings to mind the young writer at the heart of Pola X, driven to see his novel through even if it ends up inscrutable. It’s an isolating, even delusional, existence, and it can’t quell the threat of time running out. Minogue’s very appearance feels like a flashback, an odd reconciliation with the present—at another point, Minogue’s hit “Can’t Get You Outta My Head” blares from the window of a high school party, even though its attendees had barely taken their first steps when Kylie was on the charts. Oscar and Eva are framed overlooking the Paris skyline, where an illumined Notre Dame stands next to a glassy skyscraper. Side by side.
“We picture ourselves standing up, starting all over again…”
Oscar’s roles could brush painfully close to his private regrets, losses, or fears. They could also make it all seem ludicrous, even comical: Manset’s “Revivre” swells as he enters a suburban house to greet his wife and child…who happen to be chimpanzees. Or they could help him work through all of these feelings, and in a seeming escape, find an unexpected relief. The film takes a brief intermission for an exhilarating musical number: Oscar leads a small ensemble through an accordion performance of hill country blues guitarist R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride.” It’s so good that when Oscar counts off a rest, he’s visibly giddy to keep it up for another verse. As they romp through the gothic nave of the Church of Saint-Merri, the site seems to offer physical proof of its own endurance over several centuries. It also imbues the sequence with a spiritual significance. This film isn’t Carax admitting defeat, nor does it see him shying away from hardships, or trying to reconcile it all into a philosophy to carry on. In the end, it’s him seeking his source.
“…feeling the sap flow…”
The opening scene will always feel to me like an epilogue. On a frigid Saturday in January of 2013, one of my closest friends and I hopped an early Metro North train to make it to a matinee of Holy Motors. We arrived five minutes late: Lavant had just crawled into the limousine from the banker’s mansion. We stayed for the beginning of the next showing to see what we’d missed…thinking, in our innocence, that it might clarify some framing device, or at least give us another indelible nugget of whatever we’d just experienced. We got the latter. Leos Carax cameos as a dreamer, feeling his way along the walls of his hotel room, painted with forest trees: a two-dimensional screen. His finger becomes a cylindrical key. It fits the wall. He pushes into a corridor, lights flickering as he steps slowly through his own version of the mirror in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, a descent into the unconscious which Cocteau described as “a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body.” Carax enters a palatial, old-fashioned movie theater, and spies a zombified audience. Drooling dogs stalk the aisles; Carax sees an infant tottering toward the screen. Maybe it’s his memory come to life, or maybe it’s a different person altogether. But he’s still drawn toward that flickering unreality, unable to resist its pull.
“…but this is not possible. No, it’s not possible. No, it’s not—"