Fergus Daly offers a brief guide to the fall and rise of Leos Carax
"I have this feeling if I pass near you, I'll pass near everything and for a long time"
Alex to Anna in Mauvais Sang.
Of all the imminent and much vaunted cinematic 'returns', that of Leós Carax (whose fourth feature Pola X opens in France in November) has got to be the most alluring. The controversy that surrounded the financial fiasco of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and that turned Carax into the pariah of the French film community appears to have ended. After seven years in the wilderness, this former Golden boy of the industry (whose first feature Boy Meets Girl was released in 1983 when he was just 23) has found a new patron in Catherine Deneuve and a new producer Bruno Pésery who has a habit of turning no-hope projects into smash hits (for example Resnais' On Connait la Chanson. Pola X (Pola being the acronym of the French title of Herman Melville's novella 'Pierre, or the Ambiguities' on which the work is based) inevitably was made under the most rigid productional conditions beginning with Carax's 'team' being forcibly disbanded. Gone are his superb cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier as well as his leading actor/alter ego Denis Lavant. He was allowed a strictly adhered to budget of 71.5 million francs (less than half the cost of Les Amants..) and supplied with the star names of Deneuve and Guillaume Depardieu. Filling the shoes of Binoche will be Katerina Golubeva borrowed from the work of Sharunas Bartas in whose film The House Carax acted during his enforced period of absence. Despite the renewed patronage Carax still had to persuade his actors and techniques to work unpaid for the first three weeks in order to have material to tempt further investors and also made an untitled short which opened Cannes in 1997. This served as an extended trailer-cum-showcase following which enough money was eventually raised to complete the feature project.
Carax as a phenomenon has always tended to make critics and spectators a bit nervous although one often has the pleasant surprise of encountering another unsuspected devotee. The unease about or even distrust towards his genius stems, firstly, from his stupidly being grouped with talentless peers like Luc Besson and secondly, from the fact that his films even when 'difficult' are simply so pleasurable to watch. It was perhaps this feeling of agreeable perplexity before such films that led theorists in the '80's who sought to substitute the more specific concept of the Neo-Baroque for the all-too-encompassing one of postmodernism to focus on Carax as a prime example of tendencies they perceived on screen and in the society around them. Substituting for the Baroque struggle of Good and Evil, Light and Dark, Carax's Neo-Baroque films played out a struggle between Fate and Chance, heaviness and lightness. The eponymous hero of the 'Alex Trilogy' (as it came to be known) was the acrobat who experienced life as if he walked on two tightropes simultaneously, one soaring to giddy levels whilst the other dragged close to the ground. As he explained in a 'Sight & Sound' interview, life and love are concerned for him with the 'irredeemable' and 'inespéré' (what you daren't hope for). Fate creates irredeemable lives and heavy bodies but a simple throw of the dice can always bring the unhoped for or the passage to a lighter, more ecstatic level of existence. Take the 'modern love' sequence in Mauvais Sang (1986) which is in many respects the quintessential Carax moment (each of the three films contains a related sequence). Inside and outside the characters everything suddenly begins to weigh heavily. Falling into a depressive exhaustion Anna (Binoche) mutters "nothing's moving". In response Alex arbitrarily turns the radio dial, 1,2,3 and soon Bowie's song provides the spark that will electrify his body and provide him with the force to kickstart the pulse of the world. What follows is surely one of the most exhilarating scenes in all of cinema. The medium at is most indescribable. A kind of ecstatic self-extinction that is also a race towards death.
In the '80's neo-conservative critics desperately trying to stave off a new wave of auteurism pigeonholed Carax with Besson and Beineix into the school of the 'cinema de look', denouncing all three for creating only advertisement-like imagery. In Carax's case they couldn't have been more wrong. His somnambulistic universe wherein Fate does battle with Chance (Mauvais Sang is set during the passing of Halley's Comet, Les Amants ... during the Bicentenary celebrations) betrays his true lineage which is threefold:
Firstly the new wave and post-new wave cinema of those film-makers from Godard and Rivette to Garrel and Doillon who have explored the everyday postures and attitudes of the body (sleeping, lying around, eating, waiting etc.) as well as experimenting with its capacities. Their characters are perplexed inhabitants of the contemporary city, gazing at rather than responding to their surroundings, connecting only by indulging in strange rituals or mock melodrama. These films are the inspiration for the Caraxian cityscape (always Paris) wherein lovers sit or lie around and dream as time and silence invade their bodies. "We don't keep silent, silence keeps us." In Boy Meets Girl Alex's inability to connect or communicate but merely to observe those around him is a clear precursor to Wenders' angels in Wings of Desire made four years later.
Secondly, the great cinematic tradition of burlesque and Chaplin in particular. Throughout the three films Alex's (and the cinematic find of the '80's Denis Lavant) repertoire of vaudeville talents seems inexhaustible, from fine eating and ventriloquism to acrobatics and clowning. His inappropriate responses to given situations is often highly Chaplinesque. Inappropriate behaviour is a major theme of Melville's novella ( itself a work of great Baroque complexity) in which Pierre infamously directs his amorous attentions towards his sister rather than his betrothed. In Melville, Carax would seem to have found a suitable literary precursor. Another factor the Alex shares with the burlesque is an inability to get from point A to B without a series of limps, detours or staggers. Likewise the burlesque character often identifies too closely with his milieu as when Alex's behaviour becomes confused with that of the baby during the beautiful 'Limelight' tribute in Mauvais Sang.
Thirdly, musical comedy and in particular Arthur Freed's MGM musicals directed by Minnelli and Donen. Often in these films, when a situation (usually a lover's response whether positive or negative) proves too much for the character and he doesn't know how to respond, there is a moment of hesitation before he is carried away by the world which substitutes its movement for his own. A single stroll will suddenly turn into a dance as the hero's feet can't keep still. This will normally mitigate a fatal passage into the life of the loved one. Carax too associates love with entering the other's mind or dreams. From this perspective in the aforementioned 'modern love' episode when Anna says "Nothing's moving" it opens up Alex's passage inside her and he is carried along by the sidewalk at ferocious speed, speed being the rush, the vertigo of Amour Fou. This climaxes only when Anna's humming voice summons him back but now he will return to a new world and a new arrangement. His passage in and out of her world is what makes it possible for Anna at the film's end to attain what Alex calls the 'smile of speed' even though by then he will have burned himself out. She too, with Escoffier's help, will become imperceptible. The smile of speed. Like Alice's grin without a cat.
All of these influences are themselves highly coloured with Carax's personal brand of romantic pessimism drawn from his love for 20th century French poetry as well as its cinematic corollaries in Epstein, Guitry, Cocteau and Bresson.
Let's hope that Carax's first adapted work allows him the creative space to maintain his extraordinary level of inventiveness and emotional intelligence. The best advice to prospective spectators of Pola X must be: expect the unexpected, hope for the inespéré.