Alistair Harkness: Lavant’s changing faces

French actor Denis Lavant
French actor Denis Lavant
Share this article
Have your say

DENIS Lavant plays 11 roles in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. So, just how did he do it, asks Alistair Harkness

Peter Sellers played three in Dr Strangelove, Alec Guinness played eight in Kind Hearts and Coronets, but when it comes to taking on multiple roles in the same film, Denis Lavant has trumped them both. In Holy Motors, the Cannes-feted comeback from French maverick Leos Carax, he plays 11 characters, including a performer by the name of Monsieur Oscar who spends his time being chauffeured around Paris in a stretch limo, adopting various guises for a series of bizarre appointments.

“For me, the interesting factor was this sense of transformation,” says Lavant of the film, which, for reasons that are pleasingly never clarified, requires his character to inhabit numerous personas, including a bag lady, a banker, a dying man, and, more dramatically, a resurrected version of Monsieur Merde, the deranged, sewer-dwelling, cloudy-eyed creature Lavant played in Carax’s contribution to the 2008 Michel Gondry/Bong Joon-ho/Carax-directed portmanteau Tokyo!

If that film felt like it might have been the starting point for Holy Motors, though, Lavant reckons his own earlier performance as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator living as part of a Scottish-based commune for celebrity lookalikes in Harmony Korine’s cult oddity Mr Lonely (2007) was a key influence.

“I think when Leos saw me transforming myself into Chaplin it inspired him to create Monsieur Merde. Chaplin is a great inspiration for me and on Mr Lonely I was transforming myself every day, wearing a new disguise, improvising. This idea of different characters transforming and changing was new for Leos.”

New it may have been, but it didn’t stop Carax pushing the film’s strangeness. At one point Monsieur Oscar confronts a doppelganger assassin, at another a chimpanzee, and at yet another he runs into a fellow limo dweller, played by Kylie Minogue. The diminutive pop star’s incongruous presence has already ensured plenty of exposure for the film, as has the wilful obfuscation with which Carax has greeted any attempts to unlock its meaning. Speaking on the phone from Paris, Lavant isn’t about to ruin the fun by offering his own theories on what Holy Motors is about.

Then again, he doesn’t need to: playing Monsieur Oscar held a simple appeal for the 51-year-old actor. “Because he is playing all these characters I felt very close to him. He represents a day in an actor’s life.”

That didn’t mean the film wasn’t without its challenges. Just as Monsieur Oscar has to rapidly transform into each new character in the back of his limo, Holy Motors’ relatively low budget meant Lavant had to be ready every three days to fully immerse himself in another of the film’s roles. But that’s also the advantage of having a creative partnership with a director that stretches back almost 30 years.

Lavant got his first break in 1984 on Carax’s debut feature Boy Meets Girl, a tragic love story that marked Carax’s arrival as French cinema’s new wunderkind, and Lavant – cast as Alex, an aspiring filmmaker (Carax was born Alexander DuPont) – as his alter-ego.

“You can call it alter-ego, but I find that strange,” muses Lavant. With Holy Motors marking their fifth collaboration, though, he does concede they have a special bond. “It wasn’t so easy on the first film, but Leos helped me discover what cinema was and I helped him discover what acting was.” Their partnership was tested by Carax’s ambitious third feature, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), a surreal love story starring Lavant and Juliette Binoche as vagrants living on Paris’s oldest bridge.

Injuries, delays and ballooning budgets almost sank the production and derailed Carax’s career. He didn’t make another film until 1999’s Pola X and didn’t work with Lavant again until Tokyo! in 2008. “It was a monstrous experience for me,” recalls Lavant. “It lasted three years; it was physically and mentally exhausting, but I have no regrets. It helped me learn about myself and role-playing.”

Having realised going method wasn’t necessarily the best way to achieve authenticity on film helped them make Holy Motors, which in focusing on the nature of performance exposes its artificiality and ability to essay truth.

Nowhere is this more strikingly realised than when Monsieur Oscar is hired as a motion capture actor to provide the special effects reference points for an Avatar-style production. Carax lets us see the strange, beautifully animated end results, but nothing is quite as strange or as beautiful as Lavant gliding across a pitch-black stage, intertwining his body with a fellow performer (played by the Russian contortionist Zlata) in a sensuous dance.

Followers of Lavant will recognise such flights of fancy as a running motif in his work. In Carax’s futuristic fantasy Mauvais Sang (1985) he danced through the streets to David Bowie’s Modern Love. In the most striking sequence of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, he pirouetted across the bridge with Binoche against a spectacular fireworks display. And in the remarkable ending of Claire Denis’ Foreign Legion drama Beau Travail (1999), his pensive soldier unexpectedly busted a move to house anthem the Rhythm of the Night. “It’s abstract, but it’s a very beautiful way to express myself,” explains Lavant. “It was also the first way I found to express myself – before I became an actor.”

Back then his desire to escape the normality of his “bourgeois upbringing” in the Parisian suburbs led him to try tight-rope walking and poetry before discovering theatre at secondary school. He still considers himself primarily a theatre performer, but likes working with filmmakers such as Carax, Korine and Denis. “They create characters for me and encourage me to push himself.”

And having reunited with Carax for a feature, would he do so again? “He’s scary to work for, but he’s one of the best directors around, so I couldn’t say no.”

• Holy Motors is on selected release from tomorrow.