NEW YORK — “Holy Motors,” Leos Carax’s first feature film in 13 years, is a surreal, exuberant head trip that’s hard to describe and even harder to dissect. It bursts with demented yet mesmerizing images as it follows an enigmatic, shape-shifting protagonist in a white limousine as he assumes various identities — posing as a hunched beggar woman on a bridge, a dying elderly man, and a grunting, sewer-dwelling troll who kidnaps a fashion model from a photo shoot and spirits her to his subterranean lair. There’s a garage full of talking limousines, their taillights blinking as they speak, and an actor performing a serpentine sex scene with a contortionist using motion capture technology.
During a recent interview the day after “Holy Motors” screened at the New York Film Festival, Carax admits that he had doubts about whether the mystifying film, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, would connect with audiences. “I thought it would be too strange, too difficult for people,” he says.
Indeed, when the film premiered at Cannes last spring, it reportedly elicited derisive boos and cheering applause in equal measure. Since then, it’s become one of the most anticipated art house releases of the year. Despite its inscrutable qualities, critics have been showering “Holy Motors” with praise.
Then again, what else would you expect from this onetime enfante terrible of French cinema? Born Alex Oscar Dupont, he adopted the nom de guerre Leos Carax as a teenager (it’s an anagram of his first and middle names). As a young director, he burst onto the French film scene in the mid-’80s with “Boy Meets Girl” and “Mauvais Sang” (“Bad Blood”), both co-starring his then-girlfriend and muse, Juliette Binoche. The New York Times later dubbed him “French cinema’s reigning mad romantic.”
But his high-profile 1991 follow-up, “The Lovers on the Bridge” (also featuring Binoche), became ensnarled in a budget-busting, emotionally draining controversy. In the intervening two decades, Carax has directed only two features — “Holy Motors” and the 1999 Herman Melville adaptation “Pola X,” about an incestuous sibling relationship. (He spent the past decade on several projects that never came to fruition, including “Scars,” a cinematic version of the Faustian legend, and an adaptation of Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.”)
Now 51, Carax acknowledges his often contentious relationship with both the press and the French film establishment. (“I benefited from it, and at the same time I suffered from it,” he says.) Despite a reputation for being prickly and difficult to interview, Carax proves to be an obliging, self-possessed, and gentle presence during a conversation over tea at a downtown hotel. Wearing a mustard-colored zip-up sweater, his eyes mostly hidden behind sunglasses, Carax is reserved and soft-spoken but not standoffish.
As “Holy Motors” unfolds, the protagonist, Monsieur Oscar (longtime Carax collaborator Denis Lavant), is ferried by his chauffeur, Céline (Edith Scob), to a series of mysterious “appointments.” Inside the limo, he scans dossiers and transforms into a slew of strange characters. Over the course of the day, he becomes a businessman, a somber father picking up his angsty teenage daughter from a party, an assassin sent to kill his own doppelgänger, and a man unexpectedly reunited with a lost love (Kylie Minogue) inside an abandoned Paris department store.
“I invented a kind of science-fiction world with very little science and a lot of fiction — a world that wouldn’t be too far from today’s world. But it would permit me to show in one day the whole experience of what it means to be alive today,” he says. “This man goes from life to life. Sometimes he’s rich, sometimes he’s poor, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes young, sometimes old. I thought I could have the whole scale of human experience in the film.”
In this alternate universe, “Holy Motors” invokes various cinematic genres, cycling from film noir to crime thriller to science-fiction fantasy to domestic drama to romantic musical and more. The film’s genre-hopping and its flickering cinematic references have prompted critics to call it a love letter to the cinema, a meta movie that’s a reflection on the movies, and/or an elegy for the loss of cinema as we know it. Carax, however, demurs, insisting that “Holy Motors” is no celebration of cinema history.
“I hope that cinema is the language of the film. But to me it’s not about cinema at all,” he says. “To me, cinema is a place. I discovered this place when I was 16 or 17, and I called it an island. I felt very relieved to find that there was a place that I could live in — from where you could see life and death from a different angle or from many different angles.
“Cinema is, to me, a way of seeing things,” he continues. “The best spectator for this film would be someone who doesn’t know anything about cinema or who hasn’t seen many films.”
During his years of seeming inactivity, Carax directed a short, “Merde,” as part of the 2008 “Tokyo!” anthology. He says that provoked him to try to make a feature under similar constraints — shot quickly and inexpensively using a digital format — which resulted in “Holy Motors.”
Carax says that the movie was inspired by various images and feelings, including his fascination with the limousines that shuttle wedding parties through his Paris neighborhood every Sunday. He thought of the hulking vehicles as an embodiment of our times.
“These limousines are like the virtual world that we’re starting to live in more and more. They’re both erotic and morbid. They want to be seen, but you can’t actually see what’s inside of them. Also, nobody owns these cars. You rent them. Like a life for rent. And why do people rent them? Because it’s a kind of fantasy of celebrity, of fame, or being rich.”
Indeed, the film could be seen as an allegory about the decline of human relationships in an increasingly virtual world.
Carax cast pop star Minogue in the pivotal department store scene as a tragic Jean Seberg-esque figure with a pixie haircut, facing a painful reunion with an old flame. The Aussie icon, who first rose to fame in the ’80s on the Australian soap “Neighbours” and has appeared in films like “Moulin Rouge!,” croons a wistful ballad (“Who Were We?”) written specifically for the film by Carax and Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy.
Minogue describes Carax as “a man of few words, but he chooses the right ones.” Before they started filming, she recalls, he wrote her a letter saying, “I promise if you trust me, I’ll make her unforgettable.”
The challenge for Minogue was suppressing what she calls her typically bouncy, energetic nature. “I had to bring myself down and start stripping away ‘Kylie’ and get into the epicenter of his world. That involved letting go of what I normally do when I perform — putting on costumes and hair and eyelashes. I had to let go of all that and find a place internally and just allow it to very gently come out.”
Two contradictory yet interlaced feelings were paramount in creating the film, Carax says — “the fatigue of being yourself” and “the miracle that you can reinvent yourself — and that you must always try to do that.”
“That’s why there’s a part of the film that’s quite melancholic, and there’s a part that’s quite joyful,” he says. “These two feelings coexist in the film, I hope. And I would say that my whole life has been a struggle between these two feelings — whether it’s my private life or my cinematic life.”
Indeed, Carax says that the titanic struggle of rebirth and reinvention may be one of the reasons he has made only five feature films.
“I won’t make a film if I feel that I’m the same person who made the film before. I have to feel that I’ve experienced things in between my films that have made me a different person,” he says. “What I hope comes out of the film is to push people to experience and to act. You always have to react and go against what came before — to feel like you’re writing your own life, not allow it to be written for you.”