In a decade of covering Cannes, many of the most daring and accomplished films I’ve seen presented in the main competition—from Lars von Trier’s Dogville to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, and Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth—were met with hisses and jeers from the international press corps at the conclusion of their official press screenings, only to remain at the front and center of the world cinema conversation as the months passed, calmer festival screenings ensued and, eventually, they entered into general release. Heck, L’Avventura was famously booed back in the day, and there is no shortage of parvenus with press badges—more interested in red-carpet fashion than big-screen artistry—who might well do the same thing today.
Which is a long way of saying that the two boldest and most exciting films of this year’s Cannes competition also met, unsurprisingly, with violent press reactions—but rest assured that you haven’t heard the last of them.
One is Holy Motors, the first feature-length film in more than a decade from French cinema’s one-time enfant terrible, Leos Carax, who rose to prominence in the mid-1980s with two strikingly original tales of l’amour fou, Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang, that established him, along with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, as one of the progenitors of a new, advertising-and-video-influenced aesthetic dubbed “cinema du look.” Then came 1991’s Lovers on the Bridge, a costly folie de grandeur that seemed to stop Carax in his tracks for the next two decades. In that time, there have been numerous false starts (including an announced adaptation of Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle) and one completed feature, Pola X, that offered an opulently original if not entirely satisfying take on Herman Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities.
But with Holy Motors, Carax has roared back to form, and maybe even surpassed himself. This full-throttle cinematic fever dream stars Carax’s longtime muse Denis Lavant as 11 different characters—or maybe one character with 11 different identities—who crisscross Paris in a white stretch limousine over the course of one long, Borgesian, Lynchian day. There’s no mistaking the true location of the movie, however, for anywhere but Carax’s own feverish, movie-mad imagination. The first thing we see in the film, in fact, is Carax himself, waking in the middle of the night and discovering a hidden passage in his bedroom wall—a passage that leads to a cinema where the audiences sits rapt by the images on the screen. Instead of the screen, though, Carax shows us the audience—an image the director has cited as an homage to the celebrated final shot in King Vidor’s silent 1928 masterpiece The Crowd. But Carax might also have had in mind In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, the 1978 cinematic swan song of the French author, theorist and Situationist International founder Guy Debord. It too begins with an image of a cinema audience in a state of suspended animation, while Debord himself remarks on the soundtrack that he “will make no concessions to the public in this film.”
Holy Motors is, shall we say, more of an exuberant romp than Debord ever manufactured—where the latter wanted to overthrow society itself, Carax seems content merely to overthrow cinematic conventions—but it comes from a similarly radical imagination and passionate love for movies. In fact, one could argue that the “story” of Holy Motors is that of cinema itself, as the form of the film hopscotches wildly from fairy tale to thriller to musical to melodrama, with the astonishing Lavant morphing from a besieged businessman into a sewer-dwelling cretin, a virtual-reality serpent, a hired killer (and his victim), and a dying old man being visited by his niece. All the while, Carax’s camera lyrically cranes and pirouettes around the streets of a nighttime Paris that has scarcely seemed more alive with narrative possibilities. Some of the vignettes derive from stalled Carax features, while others glance affectionately at cinema’s past (like the haunting, sung-through meeting of estranged lovers Lavant and Kylie Minogue, straight out of Jacques Demy). At every turn, you feel Carax contemplating what cinema has been, is, and may yet become, and what—if any—place he can still find for himself in it.
Whereas the Holy Motors press screening was greeted with a cacophonous mix of applause, cheers, jeers, and indeterminate whooping, the reception awaiting Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux was altogether more violent. Relievedly, the competition jury headed by Italian auteur Nanni Moretti felt differently, naming Reygadas as the surprise winner of the festival’s best director prize.
Post Tenebras Lux
So fragmentary and dreamlike that it makes last year’s Cannes conundrum, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, seem positively classical in its construction, Reygadas’s film begins with an astonishing sequence that recalls the much discussed time-lapse sunrise that opened his previous film, the Mennonite marital drama Silent Light. A young girl (played by Reygadas’s own daughter) chases after a menagerie of cows, dogs and other assorted fauna in a wide-open field in an unspecified mountain region of Mexico, far removed from the big city. The image is square rather than rectangular, in the “Academy” aspect ratio of classic Hollywood and also of 8mm and 16mm home movies, and while the focus is crisp in the center, a special lens blurs and doubles the image on the edges of the frame, as though we were looking through a kaleidoscope. The colors—the lush green of the hillside, the mossy gray of the fog rolling in—are unusually vivid. (Contrary to at least one Cannes review that claimed Post Tenebras Lux was shot with “a high-def digital camera,” it was in fact shot entirely on 35mm film.) Then, gradually, thunder strikes, storm clouds fill the sky, and darkness falls.
It is the first, but not the only gathering storm in Reygadas’s film, which may best be described as an abstract expressionist reverie on the commonplace and the cosmic, on everything from the state of the planet to the state of the director’s own family—all of it shrouded in a palpable sense of looming menace. So it’s only fitting that the second image in the film is that of a bright-red, glowing, horned devil figure, which enters a home with a toolbox in one hand and gradually makes its way toward one of the bedrooms. It is the house, we soon come to understand, of a man named Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), and their children, Rut and Eleazar, who have made a life for themselves in this far-away place where they are among the few bourgeois, white-skinned Mexicans. And as the film proceeds, one of the things Reygadas asks us to ponder is whether the Devil is coming to take up residence with this family or has, perhaps, already arrived. Whereas his second feature, Battle in Heaven, explored class disparity and violence in contemporary Mexico City, Post Tenebras Lux suggests a rural riposte to that earlier film, culminating in an unforgettable, very particular rainstorm that suggests the heavenly battle is still ongoing.
The kaleidoscopic lens becomes a metaphor for the movie itself, in which some things are perfectly clear (regarding characters, relationships, scenes) while others hover opaquely about the edges of the narrative, open to our interpretation. (When I spoke to Reygadas the day after the film’s premiere, he cited his childhood memory of playing with mirrors—and specifically, the reflection of one mirror into another—as an inspiration for the movie’s unique look.) We also move back and forth in time between three distinct time periods (indicated by the casting of three sets of child actors at three different ages) that can be interpreted as past, present, and future—a future, we eventually glean, that may be no more than the imaginings of a dying man. (Not for nothing does Reygadas include a discussion of Tolstoy at one point in the film.)
Already, though, I may be imposing an overly literal reading on Reygadas’ intensely private and personal film—a movie, if ever there was, that begs to be felt rather than read. Listen to the complete audio of my interview with Reygadas here:
In a Cannes where even some of the better films seemed the work of directors stuck in a creative groove, mining overly familiar aesthetic ground, Carax and Reygadas pushed fiercely at the borders of what they—or anyone else, for that matter—has done in cinema before. Art of this sort may be destined to meet with hostility upon first encounter—the shock of the new and all that. No matter: it deserves a standing ovation.