The Leos Carax Collection Review
The jury is still out on Leos Carax as far as I’m concerned, largely because with only four films made since 1984, he doesn’t yet have the body of work to demonstrate his ability or live up to the reputation that his behaviour has earned him. If it weren’t for the controversial Pola X, his last film to date, made in 1999, the evaluation of Carax as a filmmaker would probably be restricted to considering him as one of the foremost visual stylists of the French cinéma du look of the 1980s alongside Beineix and Besson – an interesting stage in French film history rather than an important or vital one.
While each of Carax’s four films have particular points of interest and certain individual touches, they are all are flawed in one way or the other, usually failing even to live up to the director’s own ambitions for them. Their strengths and ultimate failures are both probably a consequence of Carax’s rather unusual method of making films, which demonstrates a certain wilful recklessness. Leos Carax doesn’t write or work from finished scripts, but usually starts out making the film on the basis of an idea and a couple of characters, the story only coming together over a long shooting period, continuing until he runs out of money, and then searching to find more money to finish what is only just beginning to come together. Consequently, Carax has something of a reputation of a bad-boy and a misunderstood genius and while his filmmaking method has certainly isolated him from the actors he puts through hell making his films and probably scared off anyone potentially willing to invest in him, he has yet to convincingly prove his reputation in any of his finished projects on the screen.
The closest Carax has come to perfection is in his 1991 Les Amants du Pont Neuf. A glorious folly of a film which took three years to make and necessitated the building of a full-scale replica of the bridge and its surroundings in the French countryside, it is perhaps the crowning achievement of the whole excess of the cinéma du look era. While that film is not included here – it is released on DVD elsewhere – the director’s remaining three films included in this Leos Carax Collection set from Artificial Eye have much to both recommend and abhor on a similar scale.
Boy Meets Girl (1984)
Carax’s earliest film certainly embodies the best and worst characteristics of the director. There are many striking scenes - beautifully photographed by Jean-Yves Escoffier, evoking early silent cinema and the French Nouvelle Vague - and a couple of intriguing central characters, but the film displays no real sense of purpose either from the characters or from the director, and just seems to float along until it runs out its allotted length.
The film centres around a romantic and idealistic young man called Alex, a recurrent figure in the films of Leos Carax, played in each case by the same actor - Denis Lavant. Alex has just broken up with his girlfriend Florence, having discovered that she has been cheating on him with his best friend Thomas. Having savoured every key moment of their relationship – recording it on a map of Paris sketched out on his bedroom wall – Alex likewise wants to nurse his heartbreak and mark it with grand gestures. Having settled accounts with Thomas and chosen a suitably memorable song by David Bowie to mark the occasion (‘When I Live My Dream’), Alex takes to wandering through Paris on a night of stifling heat in May. The Paris night seems to be filled with lovers, meeting, breaking up and making-up. On his wander through the streets Alex meets Mireille (Mireille Perrier), a young woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend Bernard. Aware that she is going to a party, Alex invites himself along and the world witnesses yet another boy meets girl encounter.
In the same way that Alex wanders through the Parisian night, Carax too wanders through the situation presented in Boy Meets Girl making grand and foolish romantic gestures. He recognises the beauty in such idealism and follows the precedents for it, referencing silent movies and the classics of the Nouvelle Vague, filming in black-and-white out there on the banks of the Seine and the streets of Paris. There is nothing wrong with such idealism, but Carax seems to have little to offer himself, and the film often seems pretentious and pointless. The principal attractions of Boy Meets Girl are the same as its closely related follow-up, Mauvais Sang, and that is in the faces and expressions of his cast. Mireille Perrier does indeed look like a waif from a 1960’s French New Wave film, endlessly smoking while wearing an enigmatic expression of fatalistic longing mixed with boredom. Even at such a young age, before he became even more craggy and worn, Denis Lavant’s face is a fascinating landscape that Carax’s camera just loves to explore, finding in it is all the dumb youthful idealism and fervent romantic intelligence that is otherwise absent in the director’s rather tedious and pretentious debut.
The Night Is Young (1986)
Carax claims that he stole the plot of Mauvais Sang (aka The Night Is Young, but literally Bad Blood) from Raoul Walsh’s 1945 film Salty O’Rourke. It’s hard to imagine that there is really much of a resemblance, but the strength of the plot is the least of the director’s concerns here, Carax using it rather as a framework to play around with performers, light, colour and music.
The plot, such as it is, involves a couple of aging gangsters, Marc (Michel Piccoli) and Hans (Hans Meyer), who owe money to a dangerous lady known as The American (Carroll Brooks), who has already bumped off a number of their colleagues. They plan to repay their debt by breaking into the Darley Wilkinson laboratory and stealing a deadly virus known as STBO, a sexually transmitted virus that kills couples who make love without feeling. As The American has already killed their best man for the job, Jean, Marc and Hans turn to Jean’s son Alex, who has inherited his father’s quickness and lightness of hand. Alex has no wish to get involved, and is about to escape from Paris, leaving behind his young girlfriend (Julie Delpy) and starting his life anew. However, when he sees a beautiful woman on the street, Anna (Juliette Binoche), Alex follows her and finds that she leads him straight to Marc and Hans. Smitten with the young woman, who is the lover of Marc, Alex stays and helps them plan their robbery of the deadly virus.
Despite the bad-boy image that Carax might like to cultivate, like the earlier Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang is actually a piece of work that is full of romantic idealism. It’s there in the story of unrequited love and its dangers, but the nominal plot is basically irrelevant and of little concern to Carax, who is rather more interested in the film’s visual aesthetic, which exudes romanticism from every single beautifully-composed frame. Mauvais Sang is the work of a filmmaker in love with the possibilities of filmmaking, in love with his characters, the actors playing them, their faces and expressions, and Carax puts everything in service of them. For Carax, the film was principally a means to photograph Juliette Binoche and get her to fall in love with him, and you can’t fault any director for that, especially any director who coaxes out such a love affair between an actress and the camera. But it is not just about Binoche – Carax identifies and brings out wonderful things also from faces of Denis Lavant, Michel Piccoli and a very young Julie Delpy. About 70% of the film consists of extreme close-ups of these faces, partly I would assume to make the most of the limited sets in a film that is 95% studio-based, but as he demonstrated in Boy Meets Girl, it’s in the faces that Carax looks for his real story.
There’s really little more to the film than this – Carax finding inventive ways to colour and light his sets, photograph his characters, play around with pacing and music (Bowie featuring heavily again, this time a memorable sequence featuring ‘Modern Love’) - but in this case it’s more than enough.
Pola X (1999)
The struggle to bring Herman Melville’s 1852 novel Pierre or the Ambiguities to the screen can to some extent be identified in the film’s title Pola X - a working title on the final draft representing French version of the title Pierre Ou Les Ambiguités, with the X referring to the 10th draft of the screenplay. The troubled production and the strained relationship between the actors and the director is also reflected in the film itself, an appalling, undisciplined but none the less fascinating disaster that gloriously displays its excess across the screen, staggering completely out of control and beyond the boundaries of acceptable taste.
Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) lives an apparently idyllic life in a gorgeous country château and is about to be married to a beautiful young woman Lucie. He even has a successful career as a celebrated mysterious novelist under the pen-name of Aladin. His father, a former diplomat in Eastern Europe, is now dead and Pierre consequently has a close relationship with his mother Marie (Catherine Deneuve) – perhaps a little too close. All is not as rosy it appears and Guillaume is troubled by nightmares of a dark woman with long black hair. The ghostly figure seems to take the form of a young woman who follows him around. The woman, Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva), claims to be his sister, the product of a relationship his father had with a woman while working in East Europe. Pierre has no way of knowing the truth of what the woman tells him, but it opens his eyes to the evil and corruption in the wider world outside and satisfies a self-destructive impulse within him. Perhaps without realising it, what Pierre really revolts against is the corruption and controlling influence of his monstrous mother – and it drives him away from his seemingly perfect life into the depths of depravity and self-excoriation.
There is little that is subtle about the storyline of Pola X, and there is little in the way of shading either in Carax’s interpretation of this on the screen. The opening thirty minutes are all golden sunlight, green fields and white clothing up until the moment that Pierre plunges after Isabelle into a dark forest and his life changes to be replaced with the dark urban landscapes, abandoned warehouses, industrial metal rock bands, terrorist organisations, bombs on the Paris underground and rivers of blood. Pierre wants to abandon his old way of writing and express his new-found view of the world in terms of "raging torrents and volcanoes" and this excess is mirrored in Carax’s treatment. Unable to assert any kind of control over the unfolding of the film, Carax also appears unable to control his actors, his style clashing with the acting methods of Deneuve, while Depardieu, identifying rather too strongly with Pierre, would end up bringing his own personal difficulties and insecurities into the role in a way that would take him dangerously close to a breakdown himself. The film would also achieve some notoriety for an explicit and non-simulated sex scene, one of the first to involve an established and well-known actor.
The ambiguities of the story’s title remain - we never know for certain the truth of Isabelle’s parentage or the dark nature of the reasons that propel Pierre’s descent into madness – and, depending on your level of tolerance, there may some interest in how Carax aligns the dark side of human nature to some extent with the horrors of the recent Bosnian war, finding the same kind of prejudice, intolerance and injustice everywhere in the world. In reality however, the film stumbles badly, spiralling ludicrously out of control into increasing levels of absurdity.
The Leos Carax Collection is released in the UK by Artificial Eye as a three-disc set. Each film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. All three films are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and all are anamorphically enhanced.
Filmed in stark black-and-white, often at night and in dark rooms with direct lighting, Boy Meets Girl has a particular look and feel and it is well presented on this DVD edition. The image is sharp and crisp, the image stable, with scarcely a flaw and not a sign of any digital artefacts.
The Night Is Young is a stunning looking film and it is well presented here on DVD, with deep rich tones and vibrant colours. The red levels however seem rather glaring, looking slightly over-saturated with a tendency to bloom. I’ve previously reviewed the film on its Region 1 release (as Mauvais Sang), and although that transfer is marred somewhat by a PAL to NTSC standards conversion, the colours seem truer. I’ve posted a comparison screenshot over on the old review. Other than that however, this is as close to perfection as you would want this beautiful film to be, with a strong stable transfer that has wonderful detail and tone throughout.
The image on Pola X is not so good, but the existing Region 1 – another PAL to NTSC conversion - isn’t any better. There is a certain amount of grain visible, blacks are rather flat and lacking in shadow detail, and tones often posterized, particularly in dark scenes. What is here though is reasonably good when the conditions allow. Brighter, daylight scenes fare better, even if they appear a little sepia tinted, showing reasonable clarity and detail. The majority of the film however takes place in darkness which on occasion can almost seem impenetrable.
All the films retain their original French Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes, and each of them are robust and clear throughout, with scarcely any background noise. Music features prominently in each of the films, and the songs and music scores come across with appropriate verve and force.
Each of the films comes with optional English subtitles in a clear, readable white font. Extra features are also fully subtitled.
Boy Meets Girl features an Introduction by Denis Lavant (8:09) which is actually like an audition tape for the film, the young man sharing his thoughts about the film and the character of Alex engagingly and enthusiastically. On Set In The Kitchen (17:36) seems to be footage recorded directly off the video monitor, giving viewers the chance to see rehearsals and outtakes for the kitchen sequence between Alex and Mireille at the party.
The Night Is Young also has a good complement of extra features, seeming to gather any spare footage that exists for the film at all. The Outtakes and Rushes (20:21) shows footage of the creation and destruction of the stage sets, camera and lighting tests and outtakes, including some incredible footage of the parachute jumps and stunts. There’s also a Deleted Scene (5:24) between Denis Lavant and Michel Piccoli in the car, and a non-anamorphic Trailer (2:06), which is not great quality, but it still looks great.
Pola X only has selected Filmographies for Depardieu, Golubeva, Deneuve and Carax.
IMDB list another Leos Carax film in pre-production for 2008, but whether he can find actors and investors to see the film through its no-doubt difficult and long production, and whether it will ever see the light of day remains to be seen. It will certainly be interesting to see where the maverick director can go, because on the strength of the four films he has made so far, he has much to prove, and is certainly capable of pulling out something exceptional. Alas, none of the three films included in this Leos Carax Collection set from Artificial Eye can be called exceptional – or at least not in any favourable sense of the word – but they are at least very interesting failures that show no small amount of talent and ability, hampered by a reckless attitude towards filmmaking. Such an attitude could perhaps be tolerated by a filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard, whose achievements can prove that his methods and disregard for cinematic convention can bring about exceptional results on subjects of real substance that are unachievable in any other way. If and when Carax makes a film that can rank alongside Weekend or Pierrot Le Fou perhaps then we can forgive him the excesses and indulgences displayed here and re-evaluate his films, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the next one.