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“I Need to Feel When I Make a Film That I’m Not the Same Person Who Made the One Before”: Director Leos Carax on Holy Motors

“The social web can’t exist until you are your real self online,” said Sheryl Sandberg on Charlie Rose last year. “I have to be ‘me’, and you have to be ‘Charlie Rose,’” the Facebook COO told the talk show host.

“It’s me” — that single line appearing late in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors unexpectedly devastated me at the film’s Cannes premiere, and perhaps its memory is what’s causing me to recall Sandberg’s statement, which is certainly in line with similar comments by her boss, Mark Zuckerberg. In an age in which online platforms offer the possibility for anyone to craft for themselves a variety of personas, Zuckerberg paradoxically argues that we will move towards a single “true self,” one that finds its fullest representation through social media sharing.

Whether or not you agree with Zuckerberg, it’s hard to disagree that one of the great pleasures of cinema as a popular entertainment — its ability to transport the viewer into the skin of someone else — is now just as readily found for new audiences through gaming and online interaction. Whereas the style, attitudes and often ideologies of cinematic heros — and sometimes villains — would rub off on viewers, shaping their thoughts, behaviors, and dreams, now people can just as easily create a succession of alternate personas for themselves, sharing each one only to the small audience it’s specifically created for. Zuckerberg may believe that over time these personas will all congeal into that “true self,” but he has to — his business depends on it. However, the ability to shapeshift, “present,” and match online identities to one’s specific roles in life may be a power that, now unlocked, is simply too powerful to suppress.

Holy Motors — Carax’s fifth feature, and his first since 1999’s Pola X — isn’t directly about what I’ve just written above, but it is one of the film’s great strengths that its rambunctious, episodic narrative encapsulates these ideas as well as a whole host of others. The film begins with Carax himself awakening in a hotel room. He opens a door and wall and enters… a theater, where an audience awaits to be entertained. Throughout the film, references to cinema — early motion studies by Etienne Jules-Mary and Edward Muybridge; direct references to King Vidor and Georges Franju; a concluding moment straight out of Pixar — abound. We meet our protagonist, “Mister Oscar” (the remarkable Denis Lavant), who journeys across Paris in a white stretch limo, donning disguise after disguise to become a beggar, a beast, a hitman, a concerned father, an ex-lover. The stories that result hopscotch through various genres, forming a history of not just 20th-century cinematic storytelling but the director’s own personal relationship to it.

Amidst all this movie love, however, the tone is not one of musty “cinephilia,” a fetishization Carax dismisses in my interview below. There’s a feeling of pure exhilaration to Holy Motors, a giddy sense of expectation about what lies ahead — even as the film melancholically wonders if the future we are creating will even have room for us when we’re done.

With his three early films — Boy Meets GirlMauvais Sang and Lovers on the Bridge — Carax created an emotionally luxurious, entirely of-the-moment cinema, one shot through with romance, reckless abandon, and pop-culture epiphany. Holy Motors is a wiser film made by an older filmmaker, but it contains that same excitement of possibility. I can’t recommend it more highly. Don’t settle for just one true self. See this film and experience more.

I spoke with Carax at the Soho Grand on his recent trip to New York for Holy Motors‘ premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Filmmaker: I read that the various episodes in Holy Motors were drawn from scripts of yours that were never made. Is that true?

Carax: Actually, only the “Merde” section — Mr. Merde, Mr. Shit, the green character.

Filmmaker: He’s from Tokyo [the portmanteau film by Carax, Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-ho].

Carax: Yes. I wanted to do a feature after Tokyo called Merde in USA. I adapted the opening scene [for Holy Motors]. It was supposed to be in New York, in Soho, actually, with Denis Lavant coming out of the sewer behind a fashion shoot with Kate Moss. That was the beginning of the film. It was the only part that was written before.

Filmmaker: What was the writing process like on Holy Motors? Was it written in a stretch?

Carax: I would never say I write because, obviously, I never write… The film I imagined very quickly. There were a bunch of projects I didn’t do, as you probably know — here and in London and Russia. I have made only one feature in 20 years. I had to abandon a project a few years ago in London, and my rage over not being able to shoot became too much, and I imagined this film, I think, in two weeks. I had never been so fast on the other projects. [The process] was usually very, very long. For a long time I tried to make films outside of France. I wanted to leave France, And since I couldn’t do that, I thought the only way I could make a film fast would be to shoot in Paris, to shoot with Denis Lavant because I know him so well and I thought we could go faster. And to shoot in the same way I shot this little film in Tokyo, which means a small budget, shooting digital, shooting fast, and never watching the dailies.

Filmmaker: When one of those other films didn’t happen, was it always because of financing, or were there other reasons that you would abandon a project?

Carax: Well, financing has never been easy, but I wouldn’t say it’s the main reason. The main reason is just people. You know, if you have a dollar with one producer it’s like you have 10 cents [with another]. Or, a good producer makes 10 cents into a dollar. I had this guy who I worked with for 20 years who just died in France, Albert Prevost. I never found an equivalent outside of France, someone I could trust to make my films possible. The other issue was casting. I didn’t imagine these projects for anybody specific, and it would take me a lot of time to find [the actors]. And when I find someone, a woman and a man, usually, if I don’t like them when I meet them, or they don’t like me, or they’re not free or whatever, I can’t go to a second choice. That’s always been a problem. We had an accident on Lovers on the Bridge, and the insurance [company] said, “The film is just starting, and there’s so much money in it. You have to change the lead. Find someone else.” I said, “It’s impossible.” I guess other directors are more supple. It doesn’t matter to them if their choice A says no. They go to choice B, C, D. For me, it’s very, very hard to find that person, and if they can’t do it, sometimes I abandon the project.

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors

Filmmaker: You mentioned Paris. Tell me a little bit how you think of Paris in relationship to the film. I mean, it’s the place that you could shoot in, but it also brings a lot of associations. Were those associations important to this film, or could this have been just as easily set in another city?

Carax: In terms of the production, probably not. I mean, in France, the idea was to make the film right away, but then it took me a year to find the money. But outside of France, I couldn’t find [the financing at all]. France is still the best place to finance cinema. One reason I wanted to shoot outside of France is because, obviously, I had problems. My reputation was not good there. I was sick of them, and they were sick of me. But then I kind of rediscovered Paris [while] looking for new locations. So, yes, the film you could have made in any big city, I think. The problem is that there’s not a Denis Lavant in every big city.

Filmmaker: The movie is obviously concerned about the past and the future of cinema. Do you think in this new century that the cinematic values of the last century will be present in whatever comes next? Or do you think there will be a break in that continuum of “cinema” because of the audience, or because of technology?

Carax: The break has already taken place. I guess all generations feel like mutants, but I think this time in cinema — and not only in cinema — you really feel it completely. But obviously cinema has gone through big changes before. I still think that what we call cinema is the possibility to recreate itself each time. The problem is to find again that primitive power of cinema, that first shot of the train in La Ciotat. It’s harder and harder to do today. You have to reinvent that power, which is almost a mystical power, a magical power. They had to do that when sound came. They’ve had to do that over and over again, but this time it’s going to be tougher because digital is actually cinema, in a way. So, we need more courage and more effort to reinvent cinema differently.

Filmmaker: Shooting in digital, were there aspects of the format you had to fight against on this film?

Carax: All the time. It’s just not ready, for one thing. You know, they have sold it; in six months there won’t be any more celluloid screenings in France, and [digital] is not ready. I mean, I’ve been around to screenings to test my film and it’s never good. In a way, you can’t say you’re shooting films any more, right? The cameras are more like computers. What’s the point of DP’ing? From what you shoot you can do anything after that in post production. All of this is a big mess, and it’s going to take time.

Filmmaker: I think it’s the success of the film that everything you’re saying here is in the film, yet it has a joy to it. It’s got an energy and a kind of quality that seems excited within the pessimism.

Carax: Yeah, and [the subject of cinema] is only one aspect [of the film], obviously. I mean, it’s not a film about cinema, or about digital. Who would go and see that, you know? I really think of it as a film about the experience of being alive nowadays, alive in this world. We talk about this mutant world, so it’s not sad, it’s not tragic. Or, it is sad and tragic, but it’s also laughable and joyful in a way, if you’re lucky enough. But obviously, cinema is the language of the film. I think it’s the language of all my films, you know? I’m not a kid who comes from comics or from commercials. I didn’t study film — I started making movies at 18, and that was the time I was discovering cinema.

Filmmaker: The way the film thinks about identity is something that seems very of the moment. In today’s online world, people are very conscious of how they’re presenting different versions of themselves to different people. There’s a natural analogy to the character Denis plays in the film to the role of the director, or the storyteller. But then, someone else could see the film and compare the different changes Denis goes through to the roles they play in their own lives.

Carax: I think that’s the only reason I travel with my films. In a way, the farther I get from home, the closer I sometimes get to what I think is the film. I’ll go and show the film and suddenly, you know, in some province in Russia or Africa or India, people will get out of the film something that’s closer to what I think was there in the beginning — more than when I show it in Paris, New York, and the cities of the Western world.

Filmmaker: Is the identity of a film director one that is useful to you in your life right now? What does it mean to you, that people meet you and think of you as a director?

Carax: Well, you know, I’m not like Fassbinder, who I envy — I could never write a film a year. I need to feel when I make a film that I’m not the same person who made the one before. I’ve made so few films in my life, it’s hard to consider myself a filmmaker although I know, even if it’s arrogant to say so, that I live in this place, in this island called cinema. I mean, you can inhabit cinema without making film. That’s why cinephilia and cinema are two different things in my mind. I’m not a cinephile. I saw lots of films when I was 16, 17, until I made my second film. I don’t really know much, but, I still inhabit cinema — the way I see things, the way I think. It’s somehow miraculous that cinema exists. It’s an invention. No other art has been invented. Painting, sculpture was already there. When I was 16, 17, I felt so relieved to discover cinema, like it was a place of my own. I call it an island, but it’s like a territory from where you can see life from many different angles.

Filmmaker: Is there any nostalgia associated with that now?

Carax: No. I don’t think I’m a nostalgic person. I’m full of melancholia, that’s obvious.

Filmmaker: When you say you have to become a different person to make a film, when do you realize that change in yourself? Before making the film? During? After?

Carax: I only try to imagine new films, but there is a time when, however different [a film’s] storyline is, you know it’s too close to the film before. It has to be another experience altogether to be good, to be new and to be true.

Filmmaker: Do you know this book called You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier? He was a pioneer in virtual reality some 30 years ago, and in his new book he’s very critical of technology. He argues about how software design and online platforms wind up limiting how we think of ourselves as human beings. Somehow I thought about it while watching your film.

Carax: In our world, I mean, the Western world, it seems everything is made to limit us. We think everything liberates us, you know? Every gadget is supposed to save us time. After a few years, you find out it’s the opposite. That’s been the case with my nephews and kids. They have not experienced life. They’re stuck at home with gadgets and stuff. Virtual reality is very interesting, and I do feel the possibilities are enormous, but I don’t want to get stuck in it. I would say that’s true with everything. I don’t like the world that I live in; I like the invisible world that inhabits me.

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