A Big Poem: Denis Lavant on Holy Motors

The star of the acclaimed indie drama talks transforming into multiple characters and taking inspiration from Henry James.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Denis Lavant steals every scene in Holy Motors, eleven scenes to be exact. The film follows him as Mr. Oscar, but every time he gets into his limo, he transformers into a new character. We see him perform motion capture animation, play the accordion in the street, stalk a model (Eva Mendes) as the monstrous Mr. Merde and even play gentle scenes as an old man on his deathbed (not a spoiler, he continues to play several more characters after that one). Lavant does not speak English but he made such an impression in Leos Carax’s film that we sought him out. With a translator on the line, Lavant described to us his work in Holy Motors, which opens this week in the states after playing AFI Fest. I did ask about The Angry Video Game Nerd movie, which lists him in the credits, but Lavant did not know about it so that must be a misprint.

CraveOnline: There’ve been so many interpretations of Holy Motors from people who’ve seen it. Does it have to mean something or can it just be an emotional experience?

Denis Lavant: Of course I have been most of the male characters in the film so I approached the film very simply for me, as if it was the day of an actor’s life. Afterwards, when I saw the film, I looked at it a little bit like a big poem, a poem you can interpret or see or live at many different levels of emotional interpretation. So there will be as many interpretations as there are spectators.

What did the script tell you about each character? It’s so unusual to see an actor transfer characters like this, was the script very different than other screenplays?

Well, you know I have 30 years of experience working with Leos Carax so all the films of Leos Carax are unusual or unique. I look at them as a journey, a journey which is very personal to Leos. Obviously he projects himself in this and he expresses his vision of things and the world. When I received this scenario [French for script] I was very intrigued but mostly very enthusiastic about it, but it was not completely new for me. Before we had done, in the film Tokyo, the character of Mr. Merde which actually, Oscar is a little bit of a multiplication of this character, so this is a continuation.

We get to see you put the costumes on in the limo. How long did it take to put each costume on?

It depends which character. The most time consuming part of course was the makeup, so that could go from one hour to much longer. For example, for the character of the bankers or the characters of the old man on his deathbed, it could go up to five hours of makeup.

How did you approach each different character?

This was obviously a very different approach. It was not like the part I played in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf where I studied the same character in his evolution. In this film, I did not have the time to study as much and to concentrate as much on each character. So actually, what I used was the time in makeup. The time of the construction of the character, those hours spent in the chair and during this time of transformation, this is what I used to incarnate the characters. As they were putting the hair and the age and the transformation, I was slowly building my character and starting to incarnate it. Hopefully by the time I left the makeup chair, I had transformed myself into it. A little bit like when you put on a mask. That’s how I would approach each of them. On top of that too, I had relied that the real work that was done for each of those characters was done before the shooting. We had done a lot of preparation work and study. Of course, aside from that, before the shooting there was some particular study and particular framing that I did. For example, for the old man which was taken from a character from the writer Henry James, I studied this particular passage of the book that we were referring to. For example, I took driving lessons because I don’t drive. For the character of the brother, the Chinese thugs that end up killing each other, for example there was a dialogue in Chinese that I had to learn. And for the last character, for example, we met with a monkey to study. So for each character, there were very particular aspects of this character that we trained for.

Which Henry James passage was it?

It’s a story of a young woman and she had a love story with an uncle and so on, but I can’t come up with the title right now. [Editor’s Note: Neither can we!]

Had you ever done motion capture work before this movie?

No, that was the first time. I’ve never done that form of movie before.

Usually in motion capture, we only see the results of the animation. Did you have to be very conscious of the performance too, because we’re watching you perform too?

Yes but in this case we were not really doing it. I didn’t have to worry about the animation. We were just talking about an actor doing motion capture so it’s not exactly the same.

How did you create Mr. Merde?

I’d already created this character because he appeared in the film Tokyo which we made two years before. I have a lot of tenderness for this character. I like him very much. It was not very hard to create because Leos gave me a lot of the frame for this character. With his costume and his very long nails and the way he has to walk barefoot, the way he walks, all these things were already given to me by Leos. I was inspired by the Commedia dell’Arte because I’m a theater actor and I had studied that many years before and I took this character and inspiration from the demeanor of the character Pulcinella in the Commedia dell’Arte.

When did you start experimenting with transformation and what additional tools have you acquired over the years, what other influences besides Commedia dell’Arte?

There’s no doubt that I owe a lot to my training of stage acting. Not only the Commedia dell’Arte but as well mime training and I should say choreography. All that helped me tremendously as well as the street theater. All these tools have enormously helped me and I’m capable to very quickly adapt to a new costume and to find the walk, the different demeanor. There’s no doubt that this is what really helps me in that domain.

How did you approach the accordion sequence?

Those are the scenes where we really prepared and trained the most. I had to work with a musician and I learned to play the theme. Then every weekend we would get together and do it and come together with the musicians and have to rehearse the scene in the church, it’s called Eglise Ste-Marie, Church St. Marie in Paris. Trying to play and as well have this very quick fast walk was just physically lots of work.