One Sure Bet for Cannes' Top Prize: It Won't Go to 'On the Road'

The arty spectacle of Holy Motors is grabbing the most buzz, while viewers have been trashing a Jack Kerouac adaptation featuring Kristen Stewart—even though that movie isn't half-bad.

on the road film cannes 615 c gregory smith cropped for real.jpg
On the Road © Gregory Smith

Every year just past mid-point at the Cannes Film Festival, conversation turns to which film is "Palme-able" (pardon the obnoxious Franglish)—meaning which competition entry could conceivably ignite the jury into awarding it the top Palme d'Or prize. The Oscars are fun and all, but in terms of giving a movie an air of artistic legitimacy, nothing compares to the ultimate Cannes honor.

This year, people first uttered the "P word" in talking about Amour, Michael Haneke's wrenching but surprisingly restrained examination of old age, death, and unshakeable devotion when it screened Sunday morning. Diehard Abbas Kiarostami fans also floated the possibility that the moody, elusive Like Someone in Love would bring the Iranian director his second brush with Cannes glory. And despite very mixed reactions to 89-year-old French filmmaker Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, some wondered if the jury would finally give the guy a Palme d'Or (it's his fifth time in competition).

But Tuesday night, most chatter about those films was eclipsed when French director Leos Carax unveiled his latest opus, the experimental, funny, deliriously original and occasionally maddening Holy Motors. Carax's Lovers on the Bridge, a romance between two homeless Parisians, is remembered by many for its budget-busting shooting delays and costly construction of a set to stand in for famous Parisian landmark Pont Neuf. But the film also had sequences of sublime, soaring beauty. Who could forget Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavan drunkenly leaping and dancing across the bridge as bits of various songs played one by one, as if some kind of higher power was surfing radio stations?

If nothing in Holy Motors approaches the ecstasy of those few minutes, Carax's new film, about a mysterious man who shape-shifts from identity to identity, is a richer viewing experience than Lovers—and more purely imaginative than anything that has screened in competition yet.

That doesn't mean the movie is always fun to watch. It's essentially constructed as a series of encounters—with Lavant playing a different person (or creature) in each—and some are better than others. One in which Lavant incarnates some kind of hybrid creature (part man, part leprechaun, part rat) who speaks his own language, kidnaps a supermodel played by Eva Mendes (pictured below, with Lavant), eats clumps of her hair, and dresses her in a burqa is the strangest, most brilliant stretch of cinema I've seen at Cannes this year. Other segments, like a soppy musical number with Kylie Minogue as a fellow identity-hopper or an extended, sci-fi-inflected contemporary dance routine with a latex-clad woman, overstay their welcome.

But the conceptual boldness of Holy Motors, with each segment seeming to conjure a different genre (in addition to sci-fi/fantasy, musical, and experimental/dance, there is also tragedy, gangster film, political thriller, and family drama), makes it an unpredictable ride—and one worth repeating. The movie lends itself to various interpretations—is it a meditation on actors, who thrive, suffer, and exhaust themselves jumping from role to role?—and left me wanting to see it again to get a firmer grasp.

Presented by

Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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