“It’s incredible how much cinema can do. We forget.” – Leos Carax
When he released his first film in 1984 at the age of 23, Leos Carax was heralded as some sort of cross between Rimbaud and Antoine Doinel (of The 400 Blows) – part prodigy and part enfant terrible, a creature of the cinema. Born Alex Dupont in 1960 to a French father and an American mother, Carax’s apprenticeship in filmmaking took the form of a brief career as a critic, in time-honored Nouvelle Vague fashion. And that debut feature, Boy Meets Girl, a black-and-white love story set in an atmospherically stylized Paris, drew myriad comparisons to the work of the French New Wave.
The film’s lead actor, Denis Lavant, reappeared in Carax’s next two films, always playing a romantic young man named Alex. The actor has become something of an alter ego for the filmmaker, and their collaboration continues into the present – with Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood and The Lovers on the Bridge comprising a loose trilogy of love stories.
As if the bigger-than-life ambition of The Lovers on the Bridge had brought this cycle to fruition, and the difficulties of the film’s production taken their toll, Carax waited several years before making another movie, Pola X, his only work without Lavant. It was received with some puzzlement, although time has revealed it to be one of Carax’s most thought-provoking, if most difficult films. Once again, several years intervened before Carax’s next undertakings: first the short “Merde” (part of the omnibus film Tokyo!) and finally a new feature, Holy Motors, which has deservingly emerged as one of last year’s most lauded films.
Initially Carax was often compared to two other French filmmakers from the 1980s: Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva) and Luc Besson (Subway). However, with Beineix’s career stalled and Besson gone Hollywood, it has become clear that the more apt comparison is to Claire Denis. Not only have the two been drawn to the same actors – Denis Lavant and Yekaterina Golubeva – but the two share an ambition to continually seek to re-invent, or perhaps re-discover, what cinema can do.
A critics’ favorite here and in France, Carax also arouses cult-level enthusiasm in his fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and it’s not hard to see why. His work pulses with visceral excitement – full of plot, emotion, song and dance, and arresting imagery. The films are wondrously attentive to the ways that sound, color, movement, music and affect can draw us into an onscreen world that is both completely recognizable and absolutely foreign. – DP
Presented in conjunction with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) and with the support of Unifrance, the Cultural Services of the French Embassythe Institut Français and the Consulate General of France in Boston.
Special thanks: Marie Losier – FIAF; Florence Charmasson – Unifrance; Anne Miller, Eric Jausseran – Consulate General of France, Boston; Kris Valon
Directed by Leos Carax. With Denis Lavant, Mireille Perrier,
France 1984, 35mm, b/w, 99 min. French with English subtitles
The first version of Carax’s alter ego Alex is a dreamy young man who calls himself a cineaste although he has yet to make a film. Recently dumped by his girlfriend, Alex mopes around his tiny apartment until he falls in love with another woman after hearing her voice over an intercom. His quest to find her is the thread upon which is strung a series of set pieces, both comic and sentimental, that amount to a portrait of the artist as a young man in 1980s Paris. The film captures an inextricable entangling of Eros and Thanatos that has haunted all of Carax’s feature films to date. Boy Meets Girl inaugurates the filmmaker’s collaborations not only with actor Denis Lavant but also cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, whose luminous black-and-white images match a soundtrack alternately erudite and rebellious: David Bowie, Serge Gainsbourg, the Dead Kennedys.
Directed by Leos Carax. With Guillaume Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Yekaterina Golubeva
Germany/Switzerland/France/Japan 1999, 35mm, color, 134 min. French with English subtitles
The life of a wealthy young dilettante is upended when, on the way to visit his fiancée, he happens upon a mysterious young woman in a forest. Claiming to be his half-sister, she inspires him to forego his comfortable existence for la vie de bohème in Paris. Based on one of Herman Melville’s most mysterious books, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, this moody, doomy film is a meditation on the Janus-like nature of passion, which can heal or destroy. Fittingly, Carax here eschews the limpidity of his earlier films for something darker and murkier. Sexually explicit and at times a difficult film, Pola X excited some controversy upon its initial release, but today it can be seen as a brilliant turning point from the earlier films of love to Carax’s more recent work that celebrates the anarchic modes of creation and expression.
Directed by Bong Joon-hoo, Leos Carax, Michel Gondry. With Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito
France/Japan/South Korea/Germany 2008, 35mm, color, 112 min. Japanese and French with English subtitles
Tokyo! is made up of three short films by non-Japanese directors, beginning with Michel Gondry’s segment about a young couple looking at apartments portrayed with Gondry’s magic-realist whimsy. It closes with a look by the masterful Korean director Bong Joon-ho at an actual sociological phenomenon in contemporary Japan: the hikikomori, young urban hermits who rarely leave their apartments. Separating these two is the film’s longest and most celebrated sequence, directed by Leos Carax and entitled “Merde.” It stars Denis Lavant as a completely amoral satyr who lives in the sewer, speaks an incomprehensible language and can only be described as filthy, both literally and figuratively. When he is brought to trial for disrupting the lives of unsuspecting inhabitants of Tokyo, Carax seizes the opportunity to satirize the national characters of both the Japanese and the French, particularly the xenophobia and squeamishness of each.
Directed by Leos Carax. With Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant,
France 1991, 35mm, color, 125 min. French with English subtitles
Carax capped his “Alex trilogy” with this dizzyingly romanticized valentine to l’amour fou, once again casting Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant as the title characters, a homeless couple who set up a love nest on the bridge over the Seine. The young filmmaker received permission to film on Paris’ famous Pont-Neuf, but when that proved unfeasible, he built a replica in southern France. This combination of realism and artifice spills over to the film itself, which includes a semi-documentary sequence shot in a homeless shelter. The relationship between the lovers is by turns touching and unsettling, with Carax juxtaposing the beautiful with the sinister so as to heighten both – reminiscent of Claire Denis. This alchemy of beauty and ugliness is a key to unlocking Carax’s approach to filmmaking; it amounts more or less to a particularly cinematic worldview, one that comes to the fore in his subsequent work.
Directed by Leos Carax. With Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Kylie Minogue
France 2012, 35mm, b/w & color, 115 min. French, English and Mandarin with English subtitles
Carax has always favored a loose approach to storytelling that leaves room for digressions and set pieces; here, in his first feature film in over a decade, he adopts an episodic narrative style that affords him plenty of room to express his love of actors, music, cars, women, and above all, cinema. After an evocative prologue featuring the director himself, Denis Lavant takes center stage as a businessman who travels from appointment to mysterious appointment, emerging from his stretch limo as a different person every time, with Monsieur Merde from Tokyo! making a welcome reappearance. Such is the alchemical and generous nature of Carax’s filmmaking that while remaining as repulsive as ever, and ever so slightly frightening, Merde comes to seem not just loveable but perhaps even faintly heroic.
Directed by Leos Carax. With Michel Piccoli, Juliette Binoche,
France 1986, 35mm, color, 116 min. French with English subtitles
Carax miraculously and effortlessly blends several genres in this tale of impetuous youth and forbidden love: part love story, part film noir, part AIDS allegory. The plot, involving middle-aged gangsters, young lovers and a stolen virus, exists primarily to grant Carax the opportunity to create an unending string of arresting images. Not to be missed is the spectacular sequence in which Denis Lavant launches himself down a city street to the strains of David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” a feat matched by the spectacular fashion in which Carax’s camera keeps pace with the hurtling youth. As Carax himself has pointed out, Bad Blood reveals that the filmmaker’s approach to cinema is rooted not in the Nouvelle Vague but in the silent cinema (which was also an important source for so much New Wave filmmaking), specifically, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, “its melancholy, its innocence, its poetics of close-up, gesture and the mysteries of personality.”