Sunday, November 23, 2014
Here We Are, All Alone
When Holy Motors was released to quite a bit of fanfare and praise in 2012, it was writer-director Leos Carax's first feature film since 1999's Pola X. The film is an anthology of sorts, following an actor played by Carax stalwart Denis Lavant as he goes through his day playing a huge variety of roles, not in films or on stage, but in the lives of, well, whoever...it's a strange movie. Anyway, at the time I remember reading that the concepts behind each short section, each story, in Holy Motors had come from ideas for films that Carax had been unable to make for one reason or another. I've since gathered that this isn't precisely true -- the individual stories in Holy Motors do not each represent a specific failed project -- however Carax has said that the film was borne out of his inability to get a number of projects off the ground since Pola X. The point being that either way, Holy Motors, for all its apparent confidence and inventiveness, carries with it a certain amount of regret and melancholy. I'm not trying to speak for Carax, of course, but I imagine that those thirteen years must have been filled with frustration, a creative desperation. Of course, one of Carax's stated intentions in making Holy Motors was to put himself back in the international cinema discussion, and this he inarguably accomplished.
One of the byproducts of this success has been that Carax's previous four features are being rediscovered, and re-released on home video. Last week, Carlotta Films and Kino Lorber released on DVD and Blu-ray Carax's first two movies: Boy Meets Girl from 1984, and Mauvais Sang (aka Bad Blood, aka, for reasons unknown to me, The Night is Young) from 1986. Holy Motors was the first Carax film I ever saw, and until now going back to see how Carax got to that film wasn't always the easiest thing to do. So this is a good thing.
After watching Boy Meets Girl yesterday, to begin with, I was left wondering how its release coincided with the rise of American independent films in the 1980s, specifically the release of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. Jarmusch's second film is obviously one of the key inclines in that rise, but Boy Meets Girl, though it is plainly quite different, just feels like Stranger Than Paradise, looks like it -- if the two don't share the same sense of pace, they seem to share a rhythm, and certainly a looseness. Boy Meets Girl begins with a woman in her car, breaking up with her boyfriend, or husband, over the phone, and shortly thereafter asking a man what the date is. This man turns out to be Thomas, and soon he is approached, on the banks of the Seine where all of this has taken place so far, by his best friend Alex (Lavant), who gradually reveals that his girlfriend has been cheating on him, and that he knows she's been cheating on him with Thomas. Upon announcing this, Alex attacks Thomas, almost killing him. Later, back in his apartment, Alex will update the sort of biographical/geographical chart of his mostly minor criminal history that he writes and draws on his wall, with the words "First Attempted Murder," with that day's date and a mark indicating where in Paris this took place. This all strikes me as if not exactly the kind of thing Jarmusch would do, then the sort of thing he might see in a movie and then be inspired to make Mystery Train or something.
As it happens, Boy Meets Girl and Stranger Than Paradise both came out in 1984 -- if I had a better head for dates I suppose I would have known that. This doesn't change the fact that, however many rampant Godard comparisons may be made, Carax's early work seems entirely of a piece with that era in American independent cinema, with, of course, certain European particulars thrown in, an admittedly simplistic description, but one that could also apply to Jarmusch, now that I mention it. Boy Meets Girl is black and white, and very nocturnal. It's about romantic relationships and the end of them, as well as the beginning of them, although of course, and despite the film's title, it's never that general. Along with Alex, the film's other main character is Mireille (Mireille Perrier), a suicidal dancer who, like Alex, has recently suffered a breakup, and who Alex meets by chance at a fancy, satirically so (the sense of humor here is not unlike the fashion photography stuff in the Mr. Merde section of Holy Motors), party (their meeting is slightly more complicated and protracted than that, but let's keep it simple). Mireille is not suicidal in an "indie" way, which would mean she either didn't mean it or, if she did mean it, she, or Carax, romanticized these tendencies. So that's not it, but nor is Mireille a fully realistic portrait; Carax's style and imagination are too fantastical for that. But I'll tell you this: there are times in this film when Perrier, a striking woman under any circumstances, very strongly resembles Maria Falconetti. I'm hesitant to dub this a coincidence, even if it is.
Another thing that American independent films used to do, albeit more popularly about a decade later, was take certain genre tropes, preferably crime tropes, and add whimsy, or irony, or in any case some sort of self-consciousness, played for laughs or otherwise (eventually this impulse would be motivated by, or could be chalked up to, a misunderstanding of what Quentin Tarantino was doing). This wasn't new to films in general. Godard had laid the foundation with Breathless and Band of Outsiders, just to begin with. But however you look at this vein of independent genre filmmaking, when I'm watching Mauvais Sang, Carax's second film from 1986, the temptation is to think that the post-Godardian branch was kicked off here, by Carax. Leaving aside those things about which I am ignorant and which would defeat the argument, I actually don't think that's what is going on with Mauvais Sang. I think Mauvais Sang only feels like it's part of this self-conscious tradition because it's so unusual -- if you get too creative, people begin to wonder how much of it you really mean.
There is so much that is strange about Mauvais Sang. It is essentially a crime film, of particularly classic sort ("formulaic" some would say, but try applying that here) -- Michel Piccoli and Hans Meyer play, respectively, Marc and Hans, two aging criminals who owe a lot of money to The American Woman (Carroll Brooks), a powerful gangster Marc believes recently bumped off their partner Jean. Certain they're next unless they find a way to pay up, they concoct a plan to rob a pharmaceutical company. Needing someone younger and more physically skilled on their team, they rope into this scheme Jean's son Alex (Lavant). Alex didn't talk much with his father, but over the years had learned a lot of tricks of the trade, and had developed strong gifts as a magician and con artist, making him the kind of fast, young, nimble thief Marc and Hans need. While preparing for the robbery, Alex moves in with the older men, having first broken up with his deeply devoted girlfriend Lise (Julie Delpy). There he meets Marc's girlfriend Anna (Juliette Binoche), much younger than Marc but as seemingly in love with the old man as Lise was, and is, with Alex. Alex, you gather, is beginning to fall in love with Anna. Perhaps Anna is falling in love with him. Something along these lines is to be expected.
So there's that, but then there's also the reason they've decided to rob a pharmaceutical company, of all things, and what they plan on stealing, which isn't money. They plan on stealing a virus the company has managed to isolate, a deadly virus that is ravaging mostly young people, infecting them when they have sex with someone they do not love. The vial with the virus will be sold, and so on and so forth. This idea, this virus, seems at first glance to be a science fiction conceit, but of course there's no science in there -- it's pure magic, pure romanticism. Even so, you'd think the concept would place the setting of Mauvais Sang in the future, but again, no. Though again, like Boy Meets Girl it would be wrong, not to mention impossible, to view the film as a work of realism, there are no clues that I picked up on that would indicate the setting was anything other than France in 1986, or perhaps more accurately "France" in "1986." Of course, those quotation marks could set Mauvais Sang within the realm of science-fiction, so maybe that is what's up, in a way, but if so we've now found ourselves among the works of science fiction that belong to no tradition or subgenre, because they are personal and impulsive.
Mauvais Sang is an impossible film to summarize, even though as a crime story it goes along about how you'd expect. That element is part of a tradition, that of the young criminal prodigy discovering that the life he imagined is less romantic and more morally compromising than he'd believed (which is sort of the inverse of the "retired thief pulling one last job" concept, something this film also almost is). But much of the film, save the beginning section and the ending, which even includes car chases and gunfights, has little to do with those traditions. Almost the whole middle is taken up with Anna and Alex spending an evening talking -- this mirrors Alex and Mireille at the party in Boy Meets Girl more than a little -- and possibly, probably, falling in love, while also allowing Carax what I might call his bursts of digression, such as Alex dance-running down the street to David Bowie's "Modern Love," as well as a curious moment involving a baby, and a cameo by Mireille Perrier as the baby's mother, that seems to exist to highlight the childishness of Alex, though not in a way that mocks or insults or even criticizes him. The audience is also given the opportunity during this portion of the film to marvel at the gray-and-blood-red color design, red being life, and Anna, gray being almost everything else, good and bad, except Alex, who is neither, until...well, why spoil it?
Mauvais Sang is one of those films about which you might say "That was just the damnedest film." Its crazed romanticism might be a tad much at times, to some -- hell, to me -- but if you ever find another film like it, you let me know. That's not nothing, and the drive to create in ways that are this individualistic can lead to gaps of five, six, eight, thirteen years. This is a pity, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.