There really is no one like Leos Carax — a filmmaker I only became aware of through his “Merde” segment in the portmanteau film Tokyo! (2008). My interest took an upswing with the release of Holy Motors (2012) and that led me to explore his other works — not that there are that many. His features consist of Boy Meets Girl (1984), Mauvais Sang (1986), The Lovers on the Bridge (1991), Pola X (1999), and the previously mentioned films. It must be admitted that he is not prolific — a situation that seems be more financial than anything. The expense of The Lovers on the Bridge — and its attendant underwhelming box office — accounts for the eight year gap till Pola X. When that tanked…well, you get the idea. His films are too strange and obsessive for mainstream audiences — though the first two suggested a better reception — and critics seem largely (at least in the US) unfamiliar with him, though that changed with Holy Motors. There’s an irony there since Holy Motors is easily his most impenetrable film.
Mauvais Sang — as obsessive as anything he’s made — is probably his most viewer-friendly work. Its plot at least seems to be relatively normal, though that strikes me as deceptive. The film brims with Carax’s touchstones (all it lacks is the Samaritaine Department Store). The relationships are nothing if not strange. The plot is best not scrutinized too closely, though the film is often so vague that it may not matter. There are aspects of the film — touching on AIDS and an early take on something like climate change (blamed on Halley’s comet) — that verge on science fiction. The romantic entanglements are convoluted and unusual. And Denis Lavant (Carax’s favorite) is nobody’s idea of a leading man, despite his undeniable charisma. But the film — much like some New Wave films of the 1960s — trades in gangsters and gunplay. Better still –from a broad audience standpoint — the story is built around a heist. Audiences can seize on this, put up with the rest, and fill in any of the sketchy plot with their knowledge of the genre. In a sense, Mauvais Sang is a poetic, tragic love story (actually three love stories) disguised as a B movie.
I don’t use the word “poetic” lightly here. I think that’s the best description of the feel of the film. The loose structure is obviously less concerned with story than it is with these doomed loves and the enhanced emotions of the characters (who sometime behave like characters out of particularly melodramatic opera). His soundtrack choices enhance this. The most famous of the scenes that use music is easily the one where Lavant dances to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” — something increased by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig riffing on the scene in Frances Ha (2013). It’s entire concern is to present a kind of poetic motion. There’s a more balletic use of Charles Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) score, as well. But much the soundtrack works on the heightened emotional kick of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliette, Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, and the same composer’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.” It is an extraordinary range of just-right choices.