Filmmaker Firsts: Leos Carax

#18: Mauvais Sang (1986) – dir. Leos Carax

The colorful second feature by enigmatic French filmmaker Leos Carax (b. 1960) is a study in style; substance, not so much. Although there are many memorable images in Mauvais Sang (translation: Bad Blood), a playful shaving-cream fight included, I could not help feeling as I sat in the somewhat empty Film Forum theater that this was one French film that owed quite a bit to a director who had first impacted cinema a quarter of a century earlier, Jean-Luc Godard.

For one thing, the editing, especially in moments when frames are cut out to show rapid elapses of time, reminded me of Godard’s early work, when he liked to use jump cuts for quick, sometimes playful transitions between actions. Also, the haircut sported by Juliette Binoche (right), not to mention photographing her from behind, is reminiscent of Anna Karina’s ‘do in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) – exhibit A, exhibit B. The shortness of Denis Lavant’s hair even makes the two look like doubles.

Speaking of Denis Lavant: what a strange, fascinating screen personality. He is not traditionally handsome, considering the lumpy nose, eyes a little too far apart and some pockmarks scattered across his cheeks, but he is still quite striking. From some angles, particularly in profile, his face takes on some interestingly photogenic qualities.

There is no greater scene in the film than when Lavant runs madly, in musical catharsis, to the tune of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” For most of the film Lavant is a moody, sullen figure, yet in this moment he lets loose, athletically jumping and twirling and even doing a cartwheel. It’s a pity that the scene doesn’t last longer before Lavant has to return to reality.

Carax succeeds at occasionally creating a sense of grandness out of simple gestures. In a scene when Lavant carries Binoche to a hotel across the street from her boyfriend’s (Michel Piccoli) place, it is an act made into a sweeping romantic gesture by the melodramatic music that accompanies the motion. (I cannot recall if that particular scene is set to the soundtrack of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” theme, which is used as a motif throughout the film, but if it was not, I’m sure it was something similar to befit this act of strength and heroism.) The relationship between Lavant and Binoche is more like an anti-relationship… it has no real beginning or end, but rather a series of things that happen supported by semi-philosophical snippets of dialogue. It would have been nice for some of those philosophical musings to have had a greater effect than just sounding pretentious.

I did enjoy the art direction and set decoration.

If only Juliette Binoche’s character were better-written! It is not one of her more engaging performances, certainly not on the level of Three Colors: Blue (1993) or The English Patient (1996). Perhaps she needed time to grow as an actress, but more likely it is the fault of the screenplay. It is not until the end of the film that you have a sense of the character possibly having some emotional development, as opposed to just being a pixieish object for men to love. She is beautiful to look at, but it takes her character far too long before she does something of her own free will.

On the other hand, I liked Julie Delpy better than usual. (She plays Lavant’s former girlfriend.) She was young here, only 16, and she is much more sympathetic here than in some later work like Three Colors: White (1994).

Yes, Carax experiments – filming reflective surfaces, seeing the inside of the parachute when Lavant and Binoche skydive, shooting a lot of extreme close-ups, filming one scene like a black-and-white silent film, depicting a theft (and the red lights from the security system) in an artful way – and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier is to be applauded for the efforts. But I wish I had felt more from the characters. I appreciated certain colors and certain sounds, but the entire package never coalesced into a whole.

I doubt that the film was intended to be more about style than substance. I wonder how I might feel about the film if I see it again in a few months or a few years. Sometimes I get the sense right away that I need to see the film again. I think I felt that way about David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Lars von Trier’s Europa (1991), like I knew that even if I didn’t like everything or “get” the film the first time around, a second viewing would reveal more to me. I don’t want to see Mauvais Sang again just yet, but I may try other Carax films. I suppose I could go see Holy Motors (2012), which is screening at the Film Forum tomorrow, but I don’t know if I should. It probably looks way more impressive on the big screen than it would on a TV, but I suppose it will eventually play in some other revival. In the meantime, maybe I’ll try some other films starring Denis Lavant.

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