Is “Holy Motors” Cinema’s Elegy or Its Exciting Rebirth?


Leos Carax at the New York Film Festival last week. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Depending on whom you ask, cinema is either dying or it has already been reborn. Case in point for such a conversation is Leos Carax's Holy Motors

You may not see a more original, exciting and strange movie this year. Named the best film at this year's New York Film Festival in a Criticwire survey, Holy Motors opens today for a week-long run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. 

Set in modern day Paris, Holy Motors follows a mysterious figure (Denis Lavant) who travels throughout the city in a white stretch limousine. He dons disguises throughout the day, carrying out assignments for an unseen master. The movie plays as a collection of mini-movies, many of which mine the conventions of cinematic genres.

"Every film is [influenced by cinema], I think," Leos Carax explained at a press conference on the day that Holy Motors screened for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. "I always hated that term 'reference.' Obviously, if you decide to live in that little island that is cinema, it's a beautiful island that has a cemetery. Sometimes you go to that cemetery."


Edith Scob in a mask that evokes her role in Eyes Without a Face.

Since debuting in Cannes, Holy Motors has been one of the most talked about movies of the year. It will screen five times daily at the Film Society starting today with an additional midnight screening this Friday. Leos Carax has been in New York since last week's NYFF screening of the film and will be at two Lincoln Center screenings of Holy Motors tonight. However, don't expect him to offer a roadmap that fully explains his new film. Part of what's so engaging about it is its mystery, but for months I've been tracking Leos Carax's comments at festivals in Cannes, Locarno and New York ahead of its American theatrical debut tonight.

Leos Carax's fifth feature film, Holy Motors riffs on his past work and also seems to explore aspects of his own life. Carax burst onto the scene with Boy Meets Girl in 1984, followed it quickly with Mauvais Sang in 1986 and then made Lovers on the Bridge five years later. Yet, his only other feature film in the past two decades was Pola X in 1999. Since then he's had trouble getting new features off the ground and has encountered personal tragedies.

Holy Motors seems to inhabit both a personal and impersonal space for its director.

"It's a miracle cinema exists," Leos Carax said as he took the stage at the New York Film Festival to introduce a screening of Holy Motors, calling it, "A place on earth from where you can see life and death from a different angle or from different angles." He continued, "I call it my island and [Holy Motors] was made on this island."


Kylie Minogue and Carax on the NYFF red carpet. Photo by Michael Gibbons.

In a recent interview with near his home in Paris, Carax offered Dennis Lim a bit of a riddle for The New York Times, "I am not only my films, but I'm pretty much my films." He added, “All my films originated from this fear of life, fear of loss, and also a childish hope of being born again."

Meanwhile, numerous viewers have said that Holy Motors is a movie about movies, but Carax has been quick to dodge such a direct  characterization even though while watching the film its references feel quite apparent.

"It's not a film about cinema," he teased during a recent NYFF press conference. "The language of the film is cinema. I see it as a kind of science fiction. with more fiction than science. It's a world not too far from our world. It's about the experience of being alive in this world. So cinema is the language but it is not about cinema."

Sitting in the bright sun during a conversation at the Locarno Film Festival back in August, Carax said that he wouldn't call himself a cinema lover, but admitted to watching a lot of movies over the years.

"To talk about cinema for me is a bit of a nightmare and talking about cinema... in full light is even more," he quipped dryly, adding that cinema is a night-time discussion for the dark. Is that why the lead character in Holy Motors does much of his work at night? And is that character called Oscar to draw a link to its director? After all, the name Leos Carax is an anagram for his first and middle birth names: Alex Oscar Dupont.


Contortionists Zlata and Reda Oumouzoune in motion capture suits.

Carax has similarly deflected readings that say he's made the movie to mourn the demise of tactile moviemaking, using mechanical cameras and celluloid film.

"Movies are no longer made with cameras, but computers," he said a few times last week during conversations and Q&As at the New York Film Festival. He said that he's grudgingly embraced using a computer to both shoot and edit the film, but he hasn't expressly mourned the shift so much as channeled that energy into the movie itself.

"The film questions: Do we still want experience?" Carax said last week, perhaps reflecting on society's increasing shift from analog to digital and how that is changing the way we deal with the world and the people around us.

Holy Motors seems to be both a celebration and a wake. 

"I tried to create a science fiction world," Carax reiterated, "More fiction than science. A character going from life to life. In one day, the experience of being alive."


Denis Lavant and Minogue in a scene that plays like a musical rendition of Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

Film critics have been celebrating the film since its rousing first screening in Cannes this spring. Holy Motors drew a rapturous response inside the theater and in countless critiques after the festival screenings.

"It’s a gift for moviegoers to have this much freedom, and exhilarating," wrote Manohla Dargis in today's New York Times review of the film. "It’s cinema reloaded," she praised.

Back in Cannes, as Carax sat quietly at a post-screening press conference, hardly flinching as photographers fluttered around him, he was asked to unpack the film a bit for journalists.

"Do you care how the public will view the film?" he was prodded. He remained still, shrugging his shoulders after a few beats.

"I don't know who the public is,"  Carax offered. "All I know is it's a bunch of people who will be dead very soon. That's all. I don't like public films, I like private films. I invite whoever wants to come and see it."

At the New York Film Festival last week he was similarly ambivalent in a way that was also curiously encouraging.

"Enjoy the film," Leos Carax said as the NYFF screening was about to begin. "Or not."

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (@filmlinc) and a founder of indieWIRE. Follow him on Twitter at @eug.

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