This article also appears in Spanish in the October 2006 edition of Close-Up.
Mais dèjá, au début des années 70, le rock était quasiment fini, c’est comme le cinéma, comme à la guerre: il y a les éclarireurs, ceux qui vont en première ligne et se font descendre tout le suite, les mecs morts dans les années 60, Hendrix… Après arrivent ceux de l’arrière-garde, qui ne savent même plus pourquoi ils combattent, très protégés et beaucoup moins intéressants. Ce n’est meme pas une nostalgie, c’est l’idée qu’on arrive après les choses. Par contre, le jus, l’électricité qu’il y a eu dans ce mouvement-là, je l’ai toujours recherché dans la vie, le cinéma, le montage. (1)
Born Alexandre Oscar Dupont into a period incapable of defining itself, always post-, posthumous something, a period speaking always from the death of another, Alex Oscar D. gives new life to the cinematographic media causing its limits as an autonomous expression to burst apart. His films are full of literature, music, autobiographical references and cinematographic quotations, of philosophy… although behind this uncontrolled intertextuality, behind Gilles Deleuze, Arthur Rimbaud, Herman Melville, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Vigo, David Bowie, Arvo Pärt, a dense, vast and excessive vision is discovered; Leos Carax is discovered.
Before beginning his career as a filmmaker, at the age of 20, in the late 1970s Carax joined the editorial staff of Cahiers du Cinéma, with Serge Daney as chief editor. He began his career in film criticism with a very positive review of Sylvester Stallone’s debut as a director, Paradise Alley (1978), which in itself revealed something of Carax’s particular vision, a special feeling of urgency he was demanding from cinema and filmmakers – an embryonic version of the “smile of speed”. Shortly afterwards he directed his first short film, Strangulation Blues (1979), awarded the Grand Prix du courts métrages at Hyères festival in 1981. It took him three years to direct his first feature film, Boy Meets Girl, but already in his critical work, Carax had begun to forge a certain theory of what was to become his cinema.
In notes to a retrospective on Polish cinema (2) he argues that Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage (1977) was “perle trop mais il est aussi trop mime”, and from there he draws his concept of “le film bavard muet” (3), which, as Daly and Dowd point out, is so important in his first productions. It is in this same essay that he brings up a significant question which will be one of the keys to his cinematographic vision: “les metteurs en scène qui comptent aujourd’hui ne seraient-ils pas ceux qui interrogent le cinéma muet par l’absurde, en cherchant comment lecinéma parlant parle (ou vice-versa)?” (4) Carax’s interest in silent cinema’s particular form of expression and the absurd goes beyond a mere referential game.
As Powrie argues (5), the French cinema of the 1980s was beginning to be affected by new audiovisual forms, which put into crisis the concept of authorship. From many critics’ point of view, especially those of Cahiers, in the so-called cinéma du look the author as the source of a personal style, reflection of a critical voice, “has become reduced to the promotion of signatures”, becomes reduced to a mere commercial brand. Whereas modern tradition based its cinematographic practice on the search for some truth, these authors’ cinema starts out from a lack of interest in thisquestion. Reality is no longer something to discover or grasp, the world is essentially appearance. According to Serge Toubiana, “What was in the air, advertising, pop videos, short films, zapping, were all elements which pushed the cinema towards the image and nothing but the image…” (6). The truth is that cinema, since this new audiovisual era, no longer saw with the same eyes.
This post- (cinematographic?) environment serves as the platform for caraxian thought. He himself was the object of controversy and even today he can be found associated with the exponents of that cinéma du look, basically Luc Besson, and especially Jean-Jacques Beineix. Nevertheless, whereas these filmmakers emphasise beauty in itself, in Carax’s cinema the sinister as its latent opposite threatens and, at the same time, reinforces the beautiful – a good example of this can be found in the image, of an alarming frailty, of Lucie (Delphine Chuillot) dressed as a maid up a ladder in Pola X. In Lo bello y lo siniestro, the Spanish philosopher Eugenio Trías, following a line of thought tracing back to the early romantics, argues that the transition from the beautiful to the sublime implies a certain kind of pain, a hidden element that contributes to the work with vitality. The beautiful without the sinister lacks force. Carax’s films are an experience of “the shapeless, disturbed and chaotic”, an awakening of “the feeling of the sublime” that “is brought to light with complete ambiguity and ambivalence between pleasure and pain” (7). Whereas Beineix and Besson’s cinema looks void, Carax’s films are a look into the abyss.
Returning to the argument he put forward in his essay on Polish cinema, we find that Carax postulates a certain dichotomy between the cinema of the silent period and the talkies. In the words of Powrie, “intertexts in Mauvais sang therefore function to indicate nostalgia for a golden age of cinema, paralleled by a golden age of innocence…” (8). Although I wouldn’t relate innocence in Carax to a nostalgic view, I agree with Forbes when she says he: “appears able to portray a corrupt world with an innocent eye – indeed the innocent eye of the early days of the film industry” (9). I think this innocence is fully selfconscious, it is not the innocence of someone who has not seen, but of someone who has seen and chooses how to look. Carax has before him cinema history as a whole but he does not adopt a nostalgic stand. His films do not show sadness for a lost innocence, but rather, celebrate a cinema of the past that can be reclaimed. Carax’s vision is not nostalgic but playful. He does not demand a return to mute expression in order to go back to a golden age, but instead intends silent cinema as an element which constantly puts into crisis the cinema our age is bound to live.He adopts silent expression in order to permanently question an art form that is in danger of stagnation.
Of the above-mentioned question we cannot ignore the notion of the absurd taken in its broadest possible sense, as something opposed to reason; not only its comical aspect, of which we can find so many examples in his first three films – the skis emerging out of a hole in the front window of Maïté’s (Maïté Nahir) vehicle at the beginning of Boy Meets Girl; the scene with the kid and the policemen in the subway, probably Carax’s funniest, also in Boy Meets Girl; the tricks with fruit and vegetables in Mauvais sang; Michèle (Juliette Binoche) trying to hit the drunken guard and the bottle slipping from her hand in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf – but also its dramatic function in pushing the narrative forward.
The irrational–emotional element in Carax is fundamental. As Daly and Dowd note, “ [he] will later describe the genesis of his films as advancing by way of the absurd” (10). One cannot but fail in every attempt to fit some of the scenes and situations proposed into a rational scheme beyond a mere subjective interpretation, above all in his first two films. Scenes like Alex (Denis Lavant) taking himself hostage in Mauvais sang, and the theft of the records in Boy Meets Girl, for example, do not require an explanation. They explain themselves: Alex tries to steal some records but makes a mistake that gives him away, so he rushes towards the street. Insert shot of a crutch. Alex comes out of the record shop and takes the sidewalk to his right. Suddenly he stops, a halt that Carax stresses with a jump-cut, and, for no apparent reason, starts running in the opposite direction, going once again past the record shop and the shop assistants who, instead of pursuing him, stand still as if they were Greek statues, staring in the direction Alex had originally taken.
Even though Leos Carax’s work shows remarkable erudition and an excessive use of intertextuality, his are not films only for movie fans. References and quotes emerge compulsively. He quotes, not intellectually, but emotionally. He does not want us to think about the reference but evoke the feeling emerging from it. The quote in Carax is not between brackets, but articulated inside the sentence, without commas, without full stops, integrated without distorting the narration. He manages to articulate intertextuality in a way that appeals not to movie fans’ memory, but to human emotion.
Shots are joined by continuations of movements, of intensities from one shot to the immediately subsequent one, and to the scene as a whole. In spite of fragmentation, everything is held together by a certain undercurrent of emotions which keep images and sounds together. Mauvais sang, a film paradigmatic in this way – and in my opinion Carax’s masterpiece – according to Powrie constitutes what Jameson calls “schizophrenic experience”, “an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up to a coherent sequence” (11). Nevertheless, from the spectator’s point of view, the experience of the film is not at all incoherent, neither in form nor in content – aspects that, on the other hand, are not so delimited in Carax’s work. The overall sense of Mauvais sang is not at all uncomfortable, it holds a musical coherence:
My sense of cinema is close to music. If I had to say it was close to something else, it wouldn’t be writing; it wouldn’t be painting. Composers must hear what they create. And I kind of have an intuition of that process because of the way I write films. The scriptwriting is not interesting for me. When the composer has to put it on paper is not the creative part. (12)
In Carax’s cinema, the material is linked instinctively more than syntactically.
In order to grasp the worlds Carax’s films display it may be useful to retrieve the Deleuzian notion of rhizome. The truth is that every in-depth study of the French filmmaker ends up almost of necessity resorting to the philosopher’s body of thought. Nonetheless, however useful conceptual tools like this may prove for our analysis, Susan Sontag’s reflections on the dangers of interpretation are also of great value (13). In my opinion, film critics and theorists should not concentrate their efforts on analysing the work with a psychoanalytical, historical, or even philosophical eye only. The exercise of writing on film should be a creative issue. Writing about a film should aim to capture the character, the spirit, of its object of consideration. We should try to move inside the film, without reducing it.
That is why I personally take cautiously books like Leos Carax, by Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd – in other respects very exhaustive and interesting – because, as can be read on the back cover, it holds as its aim to “[…]disentangle the complex web of biographical mythology, formal and intellectual cinematic concerns, flamboyant imagery and intertextual references woven by Carax […]” and direct more profitably the critical instincts “[…]in seeking the key to the visionary poetics of Carax’s cinema”. Although the study later reveals itself a lot closer to the caraxian spirit, this starting point seems very inappropriate to me.
Carax proposes a dispersed cinema, instead of a strictly directed one – to direct is inevitable, the issue is to not do it in a straight line. Especially in Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais sang, he opens up possible worlds to be inhabited for a limited time, with no need for a full understanding of whatever happens, as in life itself. It is not about avoiding any interpretation at all, it is about not trying to uncover the key, to reach the truth of the work. Interpretation is a game, not a tool for disentangling. It is not about taming the film, it must be free and independent. As the authors themselves say further on in their book, “poetry seeks the senses before it makes sense” (14).
But let us return to Deleuze. On the contrary to the treelike structures, images of the unity of the cosmos, that have prevailed in the history of science and occidental thought, Deleuze proposes the rhizome – a concept taken from botany – as the image of multiplicity that, from his point of view, prevails in the world. Instead of starting from an initial germ that evolves into a hierarchical and unitary structure, a rhizomatic one is formed by a heterogeneity, a non-hierarchical group of lines, interconnected intensities. This is the kind of structure that Carax’s first films formally assume, also in the relationships established between the characters, a multiplicity of lonely people bound by love and the absence of love.
Here we are, still alone. Everything is so slow, so heavy, so sad. I’ll soon be old and everything will end, at last.
– Boy Meets Girl
The dichotomy between motionlessness and ecstasy as the transgression of the boundaries of the body is central to Carax’s work. His characters behave as if they live on a frontier, constantly trying to get to the other side, to escape from stillness, tear off their skin and gasp some air – that is how Mireille’s (Mireille Perier) fondness for tap-dancing in Boy Meets Girl or Carax’s fixation with making his characters run may be understood: in contrast to the concrete stomach of Mauvais sang‘s Alex, who is not able to find the smile of speed, or the long static monologues in Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais sang, fragments of verbal diarrhoea which answer to a lyrical need, not a prosaic one, words pronounced sometimes in a low voice, others like a torrent, aimed directly at a hidden corner of our memory, fired one after another.
Carax’s first two films are poetry: the shots answer to emotional impulses and not narrative concerns; there are cracks in the image that the spectator has to fill; images participate equally from light and darkness, they are as tender as they are sinister. Compositions in Mauvais sang reach a tremendous level of abstraction, inspired by avant-garde painting of the 20th century (particularly Nicolas de Staël, the painter Godard admired the most), with a sometimes extreme spatial order which defies the laws of gravity. Where is the floor? Where is the ceiling? It is as if we were travelling on a comet, in a world different from our own.
After the death of Alex’s father, Hans (Hans Meyer) comes looking for him and they speak at Alex’s front door. Suddenly the light starts flickering and Hans steps backwards trying to solve the problem. The answering machine comes on: Prokofiev at full volume. Alex turns his head and we see his profile against the flickering light. Something magic happens, a look into the abyss, a moment out of the narrative line but full of life. A sublime instant.
Nonetheless, in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf there is no longer space for long monologues. His third film already prefigures the journey Carax is initiating towards Pola X – although, going back a bit, we already find traces of naturalism in the introduction of Alex and Lise (Julie Delpy) in Mauvais sang. The metalinguistic reflection in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is very much diluted in favour of character development and a more fluid narrative. Also Paris no longer has that dreamlike quality, it is populated, the diegetical space already belongs to our positive experience. It is not only a possible world but a probable one. In the Nanterre sequence, Carax even makes a certain documental reality circle around his fictional character, surpassing, if you wish, the threshold of intrusion.
Likewise, the film is confined within a period of time determined by the works of the restoration of the bridge – a certain personal and marginal story – and by the bicentennial celebrations – an important historical episode. Everything to do with History is contrasted in the personal experience of the characters, who live on the sidelines – fireworks in the fire that Alex vomits; the nocturnal orchestras on Alex and Michèle’s radio dial bridge; the spectacle of the illuminated boats on their own particular ride.
Leos Carax and Denis Lavant’s partnership is a miracle, as is John Ford–John Wayne’s, François Truffaut–Jean-Pierre Léaud’s, or Tsai Ming-liang-Lee Kang-sheng’s. One of those prodigious events that sustains cinema’s mythology and feeds the annals with great works. It is difficult to conceive of Carax’s first three films without Lavant. It is difficult to imagine an Alex who is not Lavant – evidently, Guillaume Depardieu is not Alex. Pola X does not look like a Carax film: Alex is not there. In Mauvais sang Alex tells Anna that he likes reflected women: Anna can be read as a reflection of the mysterious woman on the bus; Alex is a reflection in fiction, but of whom?
Daly and Dowd speak of him as an orphan of chaos, as someone who “…is detached, or in the process of detaching himself from filial lineage, and engages with the social body in an increasingly precipitous and risky series of operations presided over by chaos and chance”; as an autistic chatterbox “characterised by its oscillation between poles, […] ‘langue pendue’ is his paradoxical nickname”; and as an elderly child, who has grown up without maturing (15). This is a very precise definition of Mauvais sang‘s Alex, probably the prototypical Caraxian character and, even though the figure of the elderly child is still not fully developed, also for the Alex in Boy Meets Girl. Nevertheless, it does not account for all of Alex.
In Les Amants du Pont-Neuf Alex has changed. He barely speaks, he has given up his chatterbox facet, he seems older than he is and has also acquired a brutal and violent character, including a tendency towards self-mutilation. His love for Michèle is obsessive and violent. He is more real, more physical, less lyrical. In Les Amants du Pont-Neuf the characters’ faces are no longer those of Mauvais sang, where Anna is depicted with veneration, as if she were an angel, intangible, ineffable. Hans’ (Klaus Michael Grüber) features are monstrous, so are Alex’s. They are samples of a decadent carnality, of brutality. Of life already lived, to its ultimate consequences.
This Alex is a character with no identity. We don’t know anything about his past and the only place he can call home is a bridge, a transitory place. Nowhere or any space whatsoever, where everything always leads towards somewhere else, no end in itself. Even when Alex goes to the sea, at last – the sea he never reached in Mauvais sang – he urgently needs to return to the bridge. Away from there he is no one. He is whoever he is only on the sidelines, marginalised. Alex is an extreme character, he is neither this nor that; he is this and that at the same time. He has as much of Carax, as of Lavant, as of yourself.
He has told her… He said, do you want to? She didn’t answer yes or no. She’s a girl with a boy.
– Mauvais sang
In Pola X the editor shows her doubts about the material Pierre (Depardieu) is trying to write after having met Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva) by telling him: “You dream about writing a work of maturity, but your charm, Pierre, lies in your total immaturity”. This comment, at first glance, could be likened to Carax himself in respect to his fourth film, now without his usual collaborators. After such a grievous production of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf it would not be so strange for him to reconsider his interests and ways of seeing (although, as we have already observed, certain elements of Pola X can be traced back to his previous productions). Nonetheless, it seems as if somewhere in the eight years that went by between the two films there were a ghost work, a missing link.
In my opinion at least, Pola X is a film in a different direction: Carax has abandoned the minimalist plots that allowed him to give free rein to his visual imagery in order to adapt a story that binds him to narration; the poetry in his first two films has turned into prose (Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, Robert Musil); the dichotomy between motionlessness and speed has given way to imposture as the main theme; and neither is Paris a dreamlike city anymore.
Here, we find a more moderate Carax in his treatment of image and sound. The intertextual and lyrical excesses have given way to a desire for naturalism that is evident, once the prologue is over, in the range of compositional scales – the environment that surrounds the characters, perfectly identifiable and realistic, is allowed to become part of the image, and the characters themselves are no longer reduced to faces or fragments – and in the treatment of sound and extradiegetical music, composed by Scott Walker.
If compared to Jean-Luc Godard and later Philippe Garrel in his first works, in Pola X we find a Carax closer to Jacques Rivette – who, not in vain, has declared that for him this is the most beautiful French film of the ’90s. The Rivettian airs can be found, for example, in the importance of the ideas of conspiracy, secrecy and masks; in the shots of large interior spaces like factory buildings and chateaus; and, above all, in the treatment of time: so many meters of film are used to follow the characters’ journeys, living the process with them – at the beginning of the film we follow Pierre all the way from the chateau where he lives to Lucie’s home, including the ferry ride; similarly, at the end of the film Carax spends a lot of time following Pierre’s journey to Thibault (Laurent Lucas).
Leos Carax has stated on many occasions that “sister” is the most beautiful word for him. Incestuous relationships are a very important theme in Pola X. Nonetheless, it is already present in the character of Helen (Carroll Brooks) in Boy Meets Girl. Stan (Robert Langlois), in whose honour the party is held, is her brother, not her partner, as the spectator might think. Furthermore, a feeling of loss is emphasised by Stan’s face superimposed over the image of Helen, as before Florence’s (Anna Baldaccini) over the image of Alex and the artist’s over the image of Maïté, suggesting a relationship which goes beyond fraternal ties.
In every Carax’ film there is a dysfunctional family structure. In Mauvais sang, for instance, Marc (Michel Piccoli) acts as the father, Hans as the mother and Anna and Alex as brother and sister – in the scenes where they play, like the one with the shaving foam, they truly act as if they were siblings. But Alex desires his sister, Anna, who is inevitably in love with their father, Marc. Also in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, the link between the inhabitants of the bridge may be read as a family one, with Hans acting as father and Michèle both as mother and sister, taking care of Alex, “teaching” him how to sleep without drugs and helping his assimilation to the social group.
In Pola X, this dysfunctional family structure is pushed to the limit. Pierre not only calls “sister” the character of Marie (Catherine Deneuve), who we suppose is his mother, but does likewise with Lucie, Isabelle and Thibault. As a matter of fact, a certain identification between Marie and Lucie may be read as a continuation of the “tradition of light” in Pierre’s life, a perpetuation of the established order. This causes the genealogical structure to fold around Pierre, all the main characters belonging to the same generation, the same time period. A relationship going beyond
friendship between Thibault and Pierre is also suggested. Love and its opposite, hate, bind together all the characters in another, again, rhizomatic structure.
Pola X is a film which favours a psychoanalytical and philosophical approach. It is also a beautiful film. Pierre has built a mask around him – Aladdin – which he cannot remove, he is incapable of fulfilling society’s expectations of him. When Pierre kills Thibault he calls him by his surname, which they both share. This death could almost be interpreted as a suicide, as an act of transgression. It is very interesting how Carax, with the exception of Thibault’s, shoots death without showing it, out of the field of vision, in the temporal scope, not spatial; in an inner field. When a female character is dying or close to death, Carax eludes it and films Pierre’s reaction instead – the moment when Isabelle jumps off the boat is paradigmatic of this: the death of the female as the death of a part of Pierre himself. Whereas the masculine is outside of him, female characters make sense only in relation to him and to him they are bound irrevocably.
When Pierre disappears, Marie dies. Lucie feels the urge to follow him, she comes to the factory building to complement Pierre. She is just as much his sister as is Isabelle – the connection between the two girls becomes explicit at the end of the film, with a cross-cutting of their close-ups as they run towards where the police hold Pierre under arrest. Lucie represents his shining past life. Isabelle is the dark side, the hint of a tragic end. Isabelle is the part of Pierre that has remained buried until now, his shadow. The encounter in the woods is shot in such a way – in daylight and treated digitally,reaching the threshold of invisibility – that it looks almost like a negative image, the reverse of all previous clarity. Isabelle acquires a ghostly air. The sex scene allows us to witness the fusion between Pierre and Isabelle. They are shadows, shapeless masses that blend into a single body. “Where are we?”, asks Pierre. “Outside of everything”, she answers.
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!
– Pola X
- “Already, at the start of the 1970s, rock music was almost dead, just like in the cinema, like in war: there were scouts, those who fought on the frontline and fell straight away, the guys who died in the 1960s like Hendrix… After that came the rearguard who no longer knew why they were fighting, they were very protected and much less interesting. It isn’t even nostalgia, it’s the idea that one arrives after it’s happened. On the other hand, the juice, the electricity that movement had, I’ve always sought it out in life, in cinema, in montage.” Leos Carax, “ A l’impossible on est tenu”, interview with Serge Kaganski, Les Inrockuptibles, no. 32, December 1991. Available online at: http://www.patoche.org/carax/interviews/inrocks.htm. Cited in Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd, Leos Carax, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003, p. 53.
- Leos Carax, “ Semaine officielle et retrospective du cinéma polonais”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 307, January 1980, pp. 55–56, cited in Daly and Dowd, pp. 11–12.
- “speaks too much but also mimes too much”; “the silent talkative film”.
- “aren’t the directors who count today those who interrogate the silent cinema by way of the absurd, through asking how the talking cinema speaks (or vice versa)?”
- Phil Powrie, French Cinema in the 1980’s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.
- Serge Toubiana, “Trajectoire en 20 points”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 443/4, 1991, p. 46. Cited in Powrie, p. 5.
- Eugenio Trías, Lo bello y lo siniestro, Ariel, Barcelona, 2001, pp. 23–25. Author’s translation.
- Powrie, pp. 133–134.
- Jill Forbes, “Omegaville”, Sight and Sound, vol/no. 4, October 1987, p. 293. Cited in Powrie, p. 133.
- Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd, Leos Carax, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003, pp. 11–12.
- Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture, Pluto, London, 1985, p. 119. Cited in Powrie, p. 132.
- See Anthony Kaufman, “Interview: Carax x three: new life for Pola X, Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais sang”, IndieWire, 9 September 2000.
- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, Vintage, London, 2001.
- Daly and Dowd, p. 77.
- Daly and Dowd, pp. 4–5.
Strangulation Blues (1979) short film
Boy Meets Girl (1984) feature
Mauvais sang (1986) feature
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) feature
Sans titre (1997) short film
Pola X (1999) feature
My Last Minute (2006) short film
Tokyo! (2008) segment “Merde”
42 One Dream Rush (2010) short film
Holy Motors (2012) feature
Gradiva (2014) short film
Annette (in pre-production)
Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd, Leos Carax, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003.
Phil Powrie, French Cinema in the 1980’s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Leos Carax by Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd review by Tony McKibbin
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here
Modern Love: The Films of Leos Carax
As part of the Musicolog website.
Click here to buy Leos Carax DVDs and videos at Facets
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