THE LOVER. THE THIEF. The filmmaker. At their most suave, they are all seducers. At their most deft, they are all sleight-of-hand artists. At their most naked, they are all romantics.
In French director Leos Carax’s 1986 Mauvais sang, the lover, the thief, and the filmmaker all blur into one. Carax’s steadiest leading man, Denis Lavant, plays a character who is both lover and thief. As in all the Carax films Lavant appears in — Boy Meets Girl, Les amants du Pont-Neuf, and last year’s Holy Motors — his name here is Alex, the filmmaker’s own. Carax’s Christian names, Alex Oscar, provide him with an anagrammed pseudonym.
That his stand-in is playing a thief is fitting. As a director, Carax is the most generous of thieves. You can watch Mauvais sang (his second and still closest-to-perfect movie, rereleased in a lustrous restoration that brings Jean-Yves Escoffier’s cinematography a richness and sheen I have never seen in it before) as a series of reverent swipes from decades of movies that have preceded it. A lovers’ country idyll near the beginning recalls Renoir’s A Day in the Country and the en plein air tradition of 1930s French cinema which the nouvelle vague directors urbanized and appropriated. (Just as the rosy flesh of one of the lovers, the impossibly young Julie Delpy, recalls the women in his father’s canvasses.) The heavy nighttime solitude of the film’s deserted Paris backstreets recalls the warren of the Casbah in Pépé le Moko, or the photographs of Brassai. The bold red, white, and blues of the subway station in which the film opens echo the pop graphics of 1960s Godard films, just as a meandering, 30-minute nighttime encounter between Lavant and Juliette Binoche calls up the cramped hotel-room sparring of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless. At one point, Serge Reggiani, the hero of Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or, walks into the film cradling a dog who might be Asta from the Thin Man movies. A bed bearing a woman’s imprint inevitably (and jarringly) brings to mind the imprint left on Mrs. Bates’ bed in Psycho. Binoche enters the movie in a white dress and the silent awareness that vibrates between her and Lavant as they both ride a bus seems modeled on the humid eroticism that passes between Jean Peters and Richard Widmark on the subway in the opening scene of Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. A laughing Binoche, radiant in candlelight in a silent black-and-white interlude, might be summoning the ghost of Louise Brooks. There’s an Inspector Mouchette. And in the movie’s most exhilarating sequence, Carax and Lavant suggest what West Side Story might have been as Lavant runs dancing past blocks of sidewalk hoardings accompanied by David Bowie’s “Modern Love” (a scene Noah Baumbach couldn’t help but lift for Frances Ha).
The witty generosity of each of these lifts lies in Carax’s refusal to hoard them. He’s a little like Robert Mitchum in Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, crawling under the house in which he grew up to find the few coins and broken down revolver he stowed there as a kid. Carax proffers his movie references to us like a kid making a gift of his stray treasures.
That openness of spirit, the filmmaker’s expectation that his audience will share his deep and easy knowledge of the movie past, is very different from the present movie era when a sense of the past amounts to digging the forgotten delights to be found in Wes Anderson’s LP collection. We have become so used to the culture of sample and retread, of ironic pomo self-consciousness, that Mauvais sang might be mistaken for one more act of fandom, one more example of scrapbook filmmaking by some boy filmmaker using movie-culture iconography as an emblem of his own cool. Carax doesn’t give a damn about being cool. He works from the inside out, choosing the references he employs for the emotion they can call up rather than the associations they trigger. Carax employs references in the same way that, in his 1960s films, Godard used quotations from literature or cut to advertising graphics in the middle of a film. Rummaging through the work of the masters who have preceded him, Carax searches for the moment that will allow us to sink into the emotion he is reaching for. He works not with the swaggering confidence of a young Turk, cocky enough to place himself in the company of the greats, but with the reverent love of a novitiate. That paradoxical mix of ambition and modesty gives Carax a way to hold onto himself, to remind us that beneath these citations lies the beating heart of the lover, not the cold appraisal of the collector.
Lavant’s Alex is the alienated son of the veteran thief who, in the film’s credits, is pushed beneath a Paris subway train. Alex lives by his wits and nimble fingers, running three-card monte games on the street. Even when he’s alone and brooding, a loose cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth, his fingers are rarely still. Packing to make a quick getaway from his cramped Paris apartment, each wall lined by sagging shelves of books, he judges precisely the deck of cards he wants to take with him the way a gangster might pick the right gun. The gun is an easier choice. A Smith and Wesson, a legacy from his dead father, lies tucked behind the books on the highest shelf.
Alex’s father has been killed by the associates of a mob boss known as The American (Carroll Brooks), an elderly woman who seems to conduct her business and her life entirely from the backseat of a black sedan and who appears to have cribbed her style equally from noir femme fatales and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The dead man had been scheduled to take part in a job with his old associates Marc (Michel Piccoli) and Hans (Hans Meyer) who owe the American as well, and whom she’s given two weeks to pay up. Marc and Hans are planning a robbery, the proceeds of which will clear their debt, and were counting on Alex’s dad to bring his expertise to the job. With him dead, they recruit Alex.
Summed up that way, Mauvais sang sounds like the sort of fatalistic heist movie that was long a staple of French cinema in pictures like Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques, and which formed much of Jean-Pierre Melville’s career from Bob le flambeur and Le doulos to Le cercle rouge and Un flic. But while Carax is interested in the usual tragic-romantic finish of those movies, he’s not much interested in the plot mechanics along the way. The robbery itself, when it comes, is offhand, casual. The object to be stolen glows in the center of the room while laser-beam sensors shoot out around it. The skyscraper Alex is burgling is an obvious miniature model illuminated by the tiny lights you’d find adorning a Christmas tree. It’s a child’s comic-book fantasy of night and crime. Walking through with his rooster’s thatch of hair, his leather motojacket, a black diamond pattern standing out against the yellow background, making him look like a punk Pierrot, Alex is both the budding professional and the brooding young thief trying to leave his father’s identity behind and establish his own.
Lavant has always been an actor free of vanity. In Mauvais sang he’s not so self-serious that he’s afraid to play the clown, as Alex does to amuse Marc’s young mistress Anna (Binoche). The young Lavant uses his baby-simian features to entertain Anna with imitations of animals and drunks and the magic tricks you might see at a kid’s birthday party. It’s all wondrous. As with a bedtime story told to us while we’re falling asleep, we experience much of the movie as if in a dream state. Which is how it best makes sense.
In Mauvais sang, late fall Paris is sweltering in a heat wave, the cause of which is put down to Halley’s Comet passing overhead. When Marc and Hans and Alex take a nighttime drive in Marc’s convertible to case the scene of their upcoming crime, they glide through the empty freeway with their shirts off. Everything moves with the drugged slowness of a city that has decided to hibernate in the summer. Day and night, the streets around Marc’s glass-fronted domicile, part hideout, part atelier, remain deserted except for the people who wander through like stray thoughts, like the mother who, for some reason, is teaching her toddler to walk in the middle of the night.
The movie’s McGuffin is the thieves’ target, an antidote for a virus that has already killed thousands, a virus that afflicts those who make love without feeling love. That could be read as a reactionary response in a time when AIDS seemed so insurmountable. But Carax isn’t a political or a social artist. He’s a romantic aesthete who, here, is concerned with the conflict that comes from desiring both romantic devotion and individual freedom. He’s not judging sex without love, he’s mourning the impossibility of perfect fidelity, emotional as well as physical. Alex breaks things off with his young lover Lise (Delpy) because he sees her losing herself in him. Anna talks about how exhausted she is to be looked at by Marc with “the eyes of an inventor, the eyes of an explorer. Like a treasure hunter. As if I were the answer to something secret and mysterious hidden deep inside him.” Maybe the most important thing to know about Mauvais sang is that it’s a movie where people really talk like that, and in which, even if feel like giggling, the heady romantic atmosphere is more likely to induce a swoon.
If you think of the great works of French movie romanticism — the handmade feel of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante; the glamorously doomed fatalism of Pépé le Moko; the romanticization of the underside of the belle époque in Casque d’or; the tragedy of young love presented as Technicolor musical in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; the mournful exhilaration of the lovers on the lam in Pierrot le fou; the deceptive naturalism used to convey the rapture and tumult of first love in Blue Is the Warmest Color — you’ll find they’re linked not by any style of filmmaking. Rather, the lovers, whether because of youth or class or criminal impulses, all lie outside of mainstream respectability. The credo for all these movies could be Dylan’s line, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” When Lise suddenly reenters Mauvais sang to become Alex’s wheelman, the look on Julie Delpy’s fresh young face is so startling because the glimmer of hard satisfaction we see there makes her, for the first time, seem fulfilled. She has crossed the line from lawful to criminal and, in the world of Mauvais sang, that marks her as a true lover. Spiriting Alex away from the scene of the crime on the back of the motorcycle he’s bequeathed to her, Lise zooms through a nighttime forest as if the pair were plunging into a kingdom of dark enchantment.
In some ways, Carax’s career has been a struggle to keep believing in that kind of romanticism when the difficulties of life or work intervene. Mauvais sang is its purest expression. The film that followed, Les amants du Pont-Neuf, tells the story of two alcoholics (once again, Lavant and Binoche) living on the French bridge during its closure for repairs. Les amants du Pont-Neuf is placed on a much grander physical scale (the film’s budget ballooned when, after Carax’s permit to shoot on the actual bridge expired, he built a scale replica of it and the front of the Samaritaine department store as well) but feels spiritually battered. The beating these two homeless lovers put themselves through feels like a metaphor for what love puts any of us through. After the difficulties of that shoot, it took almost 10 years for Carax to direct another film. Pola X, his adaptation of Melville’s Pierre, was stately and tormented, a film of great beauty and no joy. Seeing it now, it feels haunted by the ghosts of the actors who played its hounded lovers, Guillaume Depardieu, who died of pneumonia in 2008, and Yekaterina Golubeva, the Russian actress with whom Carax was raising a daughter and who died, reportedly by her own hand, in 2011. (It’s Golubeva whose face we see in the still at the end of Holy Motors that dedicates the film to her.) Holy Motors, which followed 14 years after Pola X, and in which Lavant once again plays a character named Alex, joined the playful and mournful strains of Carax’s work. The playfulness came from the masquerade of Lavant’s job, assuming different identities and inserting himself into various, often inexplicable scenarios. The mournfulness came from the way Carax linked those grand gestures of illusion to the cinema itself, suggesting that the public had come to prefer the small and insular, and were abandoning the cinema’s scale of imagination.
I don’t advocate accepting any gibberish from artists because we assume they are deeper than we are, but too much time has been expended wondering what Carax’s films mean. Art isn’t always conscious. And the notion that art should be about ideas often results in work that is paralyzingly dull, shallow movies with themes that can be as neatly summed up as a research-paper thesis. Carax, for whom gestures and style are content and emotion and meaning, can invite the kind of shallow criticism I once wrote, accusing him of “image mongering.”
When the movies wouldn’t leave my head, I went back to them and, in Mauvais sang, found something as elusive as a symbolist poem. There’s no reason for Carax to include a sequence of Marc and Alex and Anna skydiving, except that it gives us a chance to see Alex embracing the passed-out Anna in his arms as they float over the French countryside, and a chance for Escoffier’s camera to look down on them from the top of the parachute as if the strings surrounding them were the web of love itself. We don’t need to know more about Piccoli’s Marc than the contrast between his weary, unspoken knowledge that his way of life is passing and the physical vigor still visible in him. (Stripped to the waist with his silver hair fringing his balding dome, Piccoli has the bullishness we see in the familiar photos of Picasso in his studio.) As the faithful Hans, Hans Meyer puts his character’s lifetime of belief in the honor of thieves into a modest, heartfelt speech about the importance of being groomed and manicured and dressed precisely before a big job. If the cops pick you up, you have to respectably represent your profession. There’s no logical reason for the shot that shows us the stars of a nighttime sky emerging from Alex’s wounded palm, or the tear that emerges from a dead man’s eye. Just as there is no literal explanation for why the random line, “My love is in the streets of the city” seems to sum up Mauvais sang so perfectly. This reverie of lovers and thieves soldiering on in a city of night makes that line seem like the soul of Leos Carax, truer for him than for any filmmaker now working.
Charles Taylor’s writing on movies, books, music, and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Nation, Dissent, and other publications.