DVD Review: ‘The Leos Carax Collection’

The French title of Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (1986) – released in the UK as The Night is Young, although the closest translation is “Bad Blood” – derives from the narcotic-laden second part of Arthur Rimbaud’s bracing prose poem A Season in Hell, a work which captures a frenzied conversation between the poet and his ‘other’. In that regard, it’s an apt reference point for the director’s oeuvre that’s filled with wildly imaginative works of sub- conscious projection. In Carax’s films, the act of creation cannot be divorced from autobiography; his work is populated with his other selves, from tortured artists to mute children. And, more often than not, the indomitable Denis Lavant is Carax’s unbridled id.

Artificial Eye’s new box set is comprised of the aforementioned Mauvais Sang, Carax’s debut Boy Meets Girl (1984) and 2012 Cannes hit Holy Motors. Together, they form an intriguing, albeit incomplete, picture of the director’s career. The two films that came before Holy Motors – the celebratory Les Amants du Pont- Neuf (1991) and the controversial Pola X (1999) – are key transitional works for those who want to delve deep into his 2012 marvel. While the subjects of his film vary significantly, each work is defined by its coded biographical footnotes and cinematic eccentricities. In this regard, Carax is the rightful heir to Jean Cocteau, the great celluloid magician whose Freudian impulse was left to run riot.

Though Boy Meets Girl is Carax’s most conventional film, it’s nonetheless a striking debut. A doomed love story about a depressed filmmaker (Lavant) who falls in love with a suicidal woman (Mireille Perrier), it’s a beautiful picture driven by the energy of the Nouvelle Vague. Gorgeously shot by Carax’s longtime cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, it betrays the rampant cinephilia of the Cahiers du Cinema gang, albeit 25 years later. The boundless energy and youthful romanticism is reminiscent of Antoine et Colette (1962), the second part of François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle. Escoffier’s intuitive channelling of Raoul Coutard is key to the film’s almost classical feel; he helped Carax root the picture in the French cinematic tradition while also hinting at the innovative direction the pair would soon take.

By The Night is Young, it had become clear what a Carax film would look like. The piece once again stars Lavant, this time playing an errant teenager in the Paris of the near future in which a disease called ‘STBO’ is killing young people who have sex without emotional involvement. It’s an excellent high-concept that allows Carax to combine dystopian aesthetics with the emotional yearning of his debut. It also cleverly taps into the generational anxiety of teenagers coming of age in the selfish eighties. Punk is dead and the counterculture has faded, but Carax argues that the rebel spirit shall always prevail. Fans of Frances Ha (2013) will certainly recognise a particular sequence that is referenced in Noah Baumbach’s film; a successor of sorts to the post-youth jitters of Carax’s picture.

In Holy Motors, a work of great thematic and technical audacity, all of Carax’s interests come into glorious fruition. A deeply personal film, it is paradoxically his most revealing work to date and his most impenetrable, tackling the concept of life as performance. The personal references are not so much coded as they are fragmented, abstracted and manipulated. It is significant that the film opens with Carax himself waking up, using his middle finger as a door key and walking onto the balcony of a cinema as a film plays on screen. What are we to make of this? Perhaps Oscar’s odyssey through Paris is Carax’s dream playing on screen, revealing his own fragmentary perceptions of who he is, laden with anxieties and grotesque caricatures. It’s the full realisation of two decades of original, imaginative work.

Craig Williams