Anyone who’s watched Denis Lavant ecstatically run through the streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Mauvais Sang (1986) or turn a cheesy Italian techno-disco song into an expression of repressed desire in Beau Travail (1999) has felt like the 51-year-old French actor could play just about any part. Fans are about to have this theory tested: Holy Motors, the latest collaboration between the star and director Leos Carax, finds Lavant taking on no fewer than 11 roles—from Monsieur Oscar, a sort of actor-for-hire, to an id-driven leprechaun. Calling from France, the actor discussed his long-standing bond with the filmmaker and what this new project means to him. (Thanks to Marie Losier for translating the conversation.)
“I vividly remember meeting Leos—it would’ve been ’82, ’83, when I was studying acting at the Conservatoire de Paris. When we did Boy Meets Girl , it was really the first time I’d acted in a film; I was much more interested in theater. With Mauvais Sang, it was different—he’d written the part specifically for me because of the bond we’d forged on the first film, and because my skills as an actor had gotten a little better. He forced me to learn all these things—motorcycle riding, card tricks, skydiving—and was constantly asking me to push past my limits, which endeared him to me. Then, with The Lovers on the Bridge , he pushed me to the edge. It was a notoriously difficult shoot, and I was trying to do something akin to what I’d heard that American actors had done in the Actors Studio—the Method thing. It exhausted me physically, psychically and emotionally. I had no idea where [the character] Alex ended and Denis began. I truly thought I was going crazy.”
“We didn’t work together for almost 15 years after that, and we really didn’t see each other much during that time. Then some Japanese producers asked Leos to do part of an anthology film they were putting together [Tokyo!, 2008], and he wanted me to play Monsieur Merde. I was intrigued, because it was a totally different role than anything else I’d played; it was almost like a dance performance. Physical expression was my first language: Before I was an actor, I was a dancer, an acrobat, a mime and a street performer. For a long time, I debated about whether I would make movies or join the circus and work as a clown. Directors have worked with that—not just Leos, but also Claire Denis in Beau Travail, or Harmony Korine in Mister Lonely . So even though Leos was just doing a short movie inside a bigger one, the way in which I had to express all these things through gesture and body language helped a lot in terms of figuring out what to do in Holy Motors. It’s not a coincidence that Merde shows up in this new film, too. It really started with that short.”
“That character, Oscar, is the film’s transitional figure: He’s the performer, the man with all his makeup and costumes, waiting for his next assignment. He’s every actor, so naturally, he’s the closest one to the real me out of all the roles I play in the film—and I play a lot of roles here. [Laughs] There’s a scene where Michel Piccoli’s character tells Oscar that 'the beauty of the gesture' is what counts—and to me, that’s the most personal statement in the film, because that’s how I view acting; that’s what I strive for. Leos understands this, and I think that’s why he wrote that into the script. I’m grateful he put that line in.”
“The way I approached the film was fairly simple: It’s one day in the life of a comedian. Period. But when I saw it at Cannes, I suddenly realized it was a much bigger statement about humanity. The movie had a resonance about expressing this joy at living through all these different personalities, through art, through cinema. I saw the poetry that Leos brought to this notion projected onto this huge, glorious canvas. Even if you’re not an actor, you can appreciate the way that he treats the idea of performance as something that is divine and binds us together. It’s funny and sad and beautiful. I think it’s a great film. Not just a good one—a great one.”
Holy Motors is now playing.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear