Filmmaker Léos Carax is back with a feature in Cannes after 13 years. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Every Cannes Film Festival seems to have a moment—more than one if we're lucky—that jolts moviegoers and reminds us why we're here. Walking in a heavy downpour through the flooding streets of Cannes on Sunday, I was wondering when I'd see a film I'd urge friends back home to watch. For me, that moment came last night.

I was settling in for the evening competition press screening and a film critic turned to me as the lights went down and told me that this would be the film that would really wake up the festival. He was right.

The must-see film of the 65th Cannes Film Festival, so far, is Léos Carax's Holy Motors.

The lengthiest press screening applause I've witnessed at this year's Cannes Film Festival happened as the lights went up on Carax's film. In a tweet, I called it the wackiest movie I've ever seen in Cannes. Then again, I wasn't here in 1999 when Carax debuted Pola X, the last time he had a feature film at the fest.

The intervening years have been hard on Carax, culminating in the dramatic death of his life partner Katia Golubeva last year. Despite the hurdles, Carax found a way to make what is the the richest film we've been offered this week. It's a film that feels alive and rewards its viewers with a lot to chew on.

Longtime Carax collaborator Denis Lavant stars as a Parisian chameleon, chauffeured through the streets of the city in a stretch limo, donning various costumes for strangely cinematic encounters each time he steps out of the vehicle. He could even be part of a web-based reality show, playing to an unknown audience.

Holy Motors is a limousine tour of a dying world, as well as a film about the malleability of identity in the Internet age, and the apparently imminent demise of physical experience,” offered Rob Nelson in a Variety review. While Indiewire's Eric Kohn wrote, “Holy Motors is balls-to-the-wall crazy, beautiful and unbelievably strange… [Carax] flies off the rails with supremely perplexing, occasionally miraculous, always memorable results.”

Pressed about the cinematic influences at work in Holy Motors, the reserved Carax was expectedly coy. Is this a movie about the history of cinema, a journalist wondered, picking up on the many film genres at play in various sequences.

“Every film is [influenced by cinema], I think,” the director said quietly during today's press conference in Cannes. “I always hated that term 'reference.' Obviously, if you decide to live in that little island that is cinema, it's a beautiful island that has a cemetery. Sometimes you go to that cemetery.”

Another journalist took a stab at getting Carax to unwind the film a bit. Does he care how the public will view the film? Carax sat still and silent, eventually shrugging his shoulders before offering a verbal response.

“I don't know who the public is,” Carax quipped. “All I know is it's a bunch of people who will be dead very soon. That's all. I don't like public films, I like private films. I invite whoever wants to come and see it.”

Holy Motors

Later, Carax explained that the first images he envisioned for this film came to him as he pondered the hunched gypsy women he passed while walking across bridges in Paris.

“For years, I've passed these women and never talked to them,” Carax explained, adding that communication between he and the women seemed impossible. For some unknown reason, he said, he eventually imagined himself driving around in a car and changing into costume at various spots in the city, dressed like one of these elderly gypsies.

The conversation about Holy Motors has just begun.

In fact, the 65th Cannes Film Festival has hit an interesting peak in recent days, turning the corner at the midpoint and ushering in a wave of competition films worth talking about. Just as the weekend storms broke and the weather cleared, a front of energized cinema unspooled at the Festival.

Walter Salles' sexy road movie based on the acclaimed Kerouac book On The Road was screened for press this morning ahead of tonight's star-studded gala screening.

“Its probably a great time for this to come out now,” observed Viggo Mortensen, who plays Old Bull Lee (or William S. Burroughs) in the film. He imagined the movie resonating with folks who embody a counterculture protest movement today. “Young people will discover this book and identity with it in a very strong way.”

Director Ken Loach drew a link to the trials of today as he elaborated on the roots of his new movie Angels' Share, a whisky comedy that's a sort of Sideways for the 99%. The film follows four Scottish kids as they try to pull off a whisky heist that can support them in their struggle with unemployment. He wanted to address the problem of massive unemployment among British youth today.

“There are a million kids who are facing a fairly hopeless future—and here's four of them.”

The 65h Cannes Film Festival continues through Sunday here in France. Next up this evening is another film that's sure to have people talking: the latest from Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux.

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (@filmlinc) and a founder of indieWIRE. Follow him on Twitter at @eug.

Get the latest daily FilmLinc coverage from Cannes in our special section.