NYFF51: “Mauvais Sang” Is the Spiritual Base of a French Extremist Filmmaker


A scene from Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang (English title, The Night Is Young).

NYFF Critics Academy member Greg Cwik takes a look at NYFF Revivals title Mauvais Sang by Leos Carax and considers the link to its "spiritual successor," Holy Motors, which had its U.S. debut at NYFF50.

It took Leos Carax ten years of cogitation, of writing and rewriting and filming and editing, to unveil his gorgeous mind-screw Holy Motors (2012), a tonally sinuous jaunt into the vast mind of the New French Extremist filmmaker that acts as both a comeback of sorts, and as the spiritual successor of Carax's second film, Mauvais Sang (The Night Is Young, 1986), screening at the New York Film Festival this year in the Revivals section.

Starring the peerless Carax regular Denis Lavant, whose protean body of work suggests a modern Lon Chaney, Holy Motors is a film of senses: it makes no discernible sense, but it's awesome in the Kantian sense, sensorially lush, aesthetically florid, alternatively assaulting and caressing your gifts of sound and vision. Lavant plays an enigmatic man, an actor of sorts, whose job is, ostensibly, to don elaborate costumes and make-up (both of which he supplies and applies himself) and play eccentric roles in unscripted flash-scenes across Paris: a wealthy but lonely old man, a motion capture artist, an accordion player, a father picking up his teenage daughter from a party, a killer and a victim, and, in a wonderful inside joke for Carax fans, a reprisal of Lavant's most immediately recognizable creation, Monsieur Merde (originally from Carax's segment of the anthological omnibus Tokyo!).

Merde is a mumbling, shambling, indecipherable outcast who kidnaps American fashion models and eats flowers. With his ratty, tattered shamrock-green suit and his crazy eyes, a schlock of red hair jutting from each hemisphere of his head and teeth that resemble the blades of a cheap coffee grinder, Merde is a complete work of fantasy, conjured in the collective conscious of Carax and Lavant--the manifestation of a career of collaborating, of experimenting with the cinematic form. 


Leos Carax's Holy Motors

Holy Motors
is both a contribution and a response to the on-going academic discourse on Carax's unique body of work that started to bloom after Mauvais Sang's release. Holy Motors, a polished and professional iteration of a fever dream, couldn't exist without Mauvais Sang. Like Merde, Holy Motors is a complete fabrication-- lucid commentary on Carax's oeuvre, a day dreamer's love letter to his icons and the genial Francophone cousin of Mulholland Dr. Carax's film veers from dream to dream, from fantastic paroxysm to absurdist non-joke, with little resembling binding ties or ligaments traversing the synapse and connecting the scenes.

The only consistent theme or idea permeating the film is that of creativity, of the artist's struggle to tend to his internal and external tribulations. Lavant's actor seemingly has no identity when he isn't playing a role, so can a film that draws on so many other films have an identity of its own? This is something Carax's critics (they do exist) have thrown back at him, that his films are simply amalgamations of other films, proto-Youtube mash-ups. But Carax doesn't simply craft keen, ecstatic quilts of his cinematic influences: he creates a certain atmosphere, a certain ineffable tone and rhythm engendered by his Godard-like jump cuts, his frantic camera shaking interspersed between longer tracking shots and intense close-ups. 

The beauty of Mauvais Sang lies in the viewers' attempts to ascertain what filmmaker Carax is channeling when and why he's channeling that filmmaker--why evoke '60s-era Godard when the characters are making what seems to be a clean getaway? Why add darkly-dreamy jazz and shoot characters out of focus? The film is the result of a lifetime spent in cinémathèques.

Mauvais Sang remains the apex of Carax's hodge-podge projects, two manic hours of genre-bending and homage-riddled touches that leave first-time viewers dizzy but invite--basically demand--repeated viewings. Denis Lavant plays Alex, a young man with fast hands and lofty aspirations of getting away. Alex's father had a scheme planned with a couple friends named Marc and Hans, but now he's dead and Alex has to fill-in. Alex has a girlfriend (a young Julie Delpy, who looks like a beautiful ghost) who loves him, but he leaves her to start his life anew. He falls in love with Marc's girl, Anna (Juliette Binoche, suggesting the subtle scene-stealing magnetism she would bring to Kieslowski's sublime Blue). 

Experiencing Mauvais Sang is like watching an excitable artist lapse in and out of consciousness. Slivers of dream logic penetrate the ostensibly linear narrative, achieved through in-camera pyrotechnics: clipped slow motion, jarring fast motion, extreme close-ups and soft-focus obscuring faces, sound drifting in and out, swelling and subsiding, the noirish score of Britten and Prokofiev's melancholic strings mingling with the modern pop-soundtrack (David Bowie gets a stand-out shout-out during an exceptionally weird and exceptionally memorable impromptu dance scene on the hot Parisian streets). Mauvais Sang is a film for cinephiles, for filmmakers, tailor-made for the New York Film Festival where the film played had its U.S. debut in 1987, and where Holy Motors had its American debut last October during NYFF 50.

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