Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd’s book is on the one hand a study of Leos Carax’s work; on the other an attempt, if you like, to make British criticism more French. It’s that the latter comes very much out of the former which saves the book from arbitrariness. It’s not that Daly and Dowd have simply chosen Carax as their Trojan Horse, but that Carax is a problematic Trojan Horse himself. He’s one of those French filmmakers that Anglo-Saxon criticism doesn’t quite get, and central to this, Daly and Dowd suggest, is that there isn’t really a critical discourse at work in British or American criticism with which to deal with the problems Carax raises. As they say in their introduction: certain scenes “express, rather, a state of being in the world, and a set of aesthetic principles seeking to capture that state at whatever cost to conventions of verisimilitude or even to the limits of the rationally acceptable”. How to set up a discourse that can introduce Carax to the English speaking world on terms that say more about Carax than about the expectations of Anglo-Saxon criticism? For the authors it lies in “thinking otherwise”, or more straightforwardly, perhaps, thinking philosophically, absorbing the philosophical into criticism. This is something Daly and Dowd saw particularly present in the great French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma, in the ’80s. Now of course Cahiers had always referenced philosophers and thinkers in their pages, but earlier, as in their André Bazin period in the ’50s, or the famously Maoist phase in the ’70s, there was the sense that the philosophical was offered through erudition – the breadth of knowledge of critics like Godard, Bazin and Rivette – or through a petrified politicisation.
But in the ’80s the authors see in the pages of Cahiers “a commitment to philosophical reflection on film” (p. 16). What they mean by this is more especially a philosophical reflection that came out of the work of Gilles Deleuze, whose philosophy couldn’t quite be absorbed unless actually practised. As Deleuzian thinker Philip Goodchild suggests, “the frequent failure to comprehend Deleuze’s philosophy on the part of readers and critics is a result of attempting to represent it, reinscribing it with a foreign semiotic regime, as opposed to rethinking it, repeating the act of thought, which will always be repeated differently” (1). What mattered here was less the polemical defence of certain films, so much as immanent states of reflection that certain films invoked in the viewer. What’s thus required is a constant revision of one’s own perspective, a constant revision of what Daly and Dowd call the “petrified hermeneutic landscape of our own configuration” (p. 16), where we all have to be aware of how ready we are to judge, and how difficult it is constantly to explore new developments in the image.
Consequently any potential arrogance in the book is tempered by this tentativeness, so that when the authors chastise Tom Charity for calling the Philippe Garrel film Le vent de la nuit (1998) “unconscionable pretentious tosh”, or have problems with Paul Willemen reckoning von Trier’s world is one “emptied of all traces of a world other than that of the film maker’s idiotic, sorry: idiosyncratic ‘personal perspective’” (p. 15), they don’t so much say the critic is wrong, but wonder how the critic can practise such pure judgement. Aren’t the critics caught in this petrified hermeneutic landscape of their own configuration?
So what we have here is a book trying to do several things at once. First and foremost the authors assume a position of modesty in the face of fresh, still tentatively comprehended images. And then they set to work trying to make sense of these images in relation to certain filmic, aesthetic and philosophical principles. Let’s take for example the influence of the baroque in Carax’s work. Here Daly and Dowd trace the baroque to the aesthetic movement present in the work of, say, Bernini’s “The Ecstacy of St Tereza”, where a central axis disappears, and the frame no longer seems to contain the image, but the image in some ways explodes beyond the frame. What they then find present in the image is a “principle of turbulence” (p. 47). But then of course this principle is reined in by a wider theological or political pragmatism that we can find for example in Leibniz’s system of thought. Sure there would be baroque possibilities, an infinite number of ways in which matter can act, but any chaos that could result from this is countered by Leibniz’s belief that substances are, as G.H.R. Parkinson puts it in his introduction to Leibniz’s Philosophical writings, “correlated by God, who ‘pre-establishes’ a harmony between substance; that is, creates substances which are such that, although independent of each other, they also harmonise” (2). Now Leibniz accepts that every particular thing in the world is “contingent” – that it would be logically possible for anything that exists not to exist; but because Leibniz believes everything has a sufficient reason, this possible world of chaos must have a reason beyond the universe, and Leibniz believes this sufficient reason is God.
But remove God from the equation and you have the turbulence in a purer form. It’s this unalleviated chaos that Carax focuses upon, and hence the authors invoke Hamlet’s key line about the world being out of joint. But, we might ask, how does this impact on the films? For Daly and Dowd it lies in the presentation of the event as constantly off-centre:
…on the aesthetic level such a philosophy of the event is translated into a cinematic system, which might be thought of in terms of turbulence or perturbation: camera placement and lighting provoking both a troubled perception in a smooth space that lacks points of orientation, and a mood that veers from intense ennui to vertigo (p. 54).
Thus they suggest that rather than working within Leibniz’s notion of the absolute, Carax’s characters would prefer to live in a world of “infinity”, or “eternity”. This is a world chiefly motivated by speed and flux, by “a toute vitesse”, especially present, say, in Mauvais Sang (1986) and Les Amants du pont neuf (1992). In the former it manifests itself especially well in the famous moment where Alex dances furiously to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”, where any heaviness within him, any apparently absolute state of inertia, is countered furiously by a state of complete freedom, an excess by any conventional standards, because of the lack of underlying intention that sets the dance in motion (in complete contrast say to Gene Kelly’s dance to “Singin’ in the Rain”, which is motivated by the feelings of falling in love), and by the sheer acrobatic excess of the dance itself, as though even the rhythm of the music can’t possibly contain the energy that’s unleashed. This chaos of movement, this refusal to be contained by conventional notions of movement, is also present in Les Amants du Pont Neuf, where any notion of official celebration is secondary to a personal release. As the French bicentennial celebrations take place, the central, yet socially marginalised characters, Alex and Michele, have their own equivalent. “The red, white and blue of the celebrations abound but are never spoken by the protagonists. Parallel and outside – yet curiously invaded in the form of falling fireworks by the celebrations – the two lovers do enact their own celebration” (p. 145). Here the framing music is French accordion music, but then it switches to North African music, to Iggy Pop and then onto a rap track by Public Enemy before concluding on a Strauss waltz.
What we mean here is no more than that the absolute reasoning of the Leibnizian baroque gives way to the much more arbitrary state of flux in a neo-baroque system to which the authors believe Carax is central. If we see Carax’s films as searches for space beyond rationalism, beyond signification and convention, then many scenes that seem illogical have their own logic. If we accept Carax’s world is one out of joint, then the characters must seek out not conventional actions in a world that on some level lacks grounding for these conventions, but gestures that can give their existence a bearable lightness. This may take the form of the dance to “Modern Love”, or it could illustrate itself in Alex in Les Amants du Pont Neuf speaking through fire – and fire-eating – over language. If there’s often a mute quality to the protagonists in Carax – in the central character in Boy Meets Girl (1984) holding so much silence within him; in the writer in Pola X (1999) who can’t communicate lucidly through language during a chat show appearance – it lies as much in this world that’s devoid of rationalist coordinates as in the characters themselves who are seeking an alter-reality.
So what Daly and Dowd seek out is in some ways a genealogy: they find in Carax a tradition that includes Philippe Garrel, Jacques Rivette and also Raúl Ruiz and André Téchiné. But this isn’t a disembodied genealogy, where filmmakers just happen to be working in the same terrain, but rather a philosophical, ontological position where the filmmakers are searching amongst the rubble of the ontological fallout of a world without meaning that nevertheless is far from meaningless. The viewer, watching Carax’s films, must be part of this search for meaning instead of settling for petrified givens.
In many ways Daly and Dowd’s book is an introduction, as it sets out to explore the aesthetic space Carax occupies. It thus leaves plenty of room for critics, in accepting some of the premises the writers set up, to search more specifically amongst the rubble themselves. If this fine and adventurous book has a weakness, it lies in expecting the reader to do much of that searching him or herself. But even this criticism is a moot point, since if all the examples were given to us, wouldn’t our own hermeneutic search through the Carax landscape be a little too easy?
Leos Carax, Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003.
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