MASTERPIECE or massive indulgence? Holy Motors, a series of vignettes about a mysterious actor who moves between roles in other people's lives in a chauffeur-driven limo, was equally loved and loathed and endlessly discussed when it screened at Cannes this year.
"In my films," says French director Leos Carax calmly, "there is no fear of ridicule; they are grotesque, or appear to be to certain people. Why films are a success or not I don't know. I don't really know the public well enough." In his view, Holy Motors is quite straightforward. "If a child were to watch it, he wouldn't have a problem. It's the language of cinema that disturbs people.''
Carax is 52, but he has made only five films, the last of them - the almost universally reviled Pola X, a gloomy meditation on displacement - way back in 1999. Holy Motors is thus seen by long-standing fans of his earlier films, in particular The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) - his greatest symphony of romantic excess - as a grand return to form.
Kylie Minogue, who sings about memory in what is perhaps the film's most poignant segment, stepped on stage at the Locarno Film Festival last week to announce sweetly that Carax was a genius. "It is not overstating the case to say that making this film changed my life," she said.
Carax's films (apart from Pola X) centre on Oscar Alex, a rat-like prowler of the Parisian netherworld who is always played by the small, agile and physically extreme Denis Lavant. The character represents Carax himself: Leos Carax is a pseudonym from the letters of the director's real given names, Alex Oscar. He chose Lavant for his first feature Boy Meets Girl, he says, largely because they were the same age and height.
"I don't know him. We are not friends. We have never had dinner together," he explains after the Locarno screening. "But he's indispensable for me in a certain kind of film. I could ask anything of him physically: if I told him I wanted him to do a double backward somersault, he would learn how to do it."
Lavant must transform himself constantly in Holy Motors. In one segment he plays an old woman begging on one of the bridges across the Seine, in another an anxious father picking up his daughter from a party; in another he is the monstrous Mr Merde, who drags sumptuous Eva Mendes down to his hideaway in the sewer and masturbates next to her.
A serene chauffeur, played by Edith Scob, drives him between engagements.
What does it all mean? Carax waves away suggestions that he is offering a commentary on the actor's life of pretence or, perhaps, on the illusory nature of cinema itself.
"I'm not a writer," he says. "I start with two or three images, two or three feelings and then it's just a series of coincidences. I have these huge cars in the film because I saw them in the United States 10 years ago and now they are in my neighbourhood in Paris.
"The gypsy woman on the bridge with her back completely bent: I saw her and thought 'I could never communicate with her; we're a world apart - so why not try to make a documentary about her? But then I felt I'd have to finish it, so I went entirely the other way and turned her into fiction. And OK, Oscar is an actor, but I'm not interested in actors. I'm interested in that journey between worlds … the cars permit the experience of moving on, to go from one life to the next as we all have to do - alone."
Within the limousine's seemingly infinite interior, Oscar prepares for his successive bouts with the outside world. "I think that stretch limos are fascinating," says Carax. "It seems to be a truly cinematic vehicle, erotic and morbid at the same time, made to be seen but opaque, a virtual bubble. When you're inside it, you are no longer in real life. It is normal that cinema should be inspired by that."