Escape Velocity: The Films of Leos Carax

This weekend, TIFF is running a retrospective of the films of Leos Carax called Modern Love. L’amour fou is what the French call it, crazy love, and a jumbled madcap romanticism is at the heart of all Carax’s films. From the kinetic debut of 1984’s Boy Meets Girl to 2012’s confounding critical sensation Holy Motors, Carax has made deeply personal, idiosyncratic cinema, narratively challenged but always visually compelling. In that thirty-eight-year span, Carax has made only five features, and TIFF is presenting them all. Carax himself will be present for three of the screenings. It’s almost impossible to tie his films down to any one thing, but I’ll lob a few into the air for you, after the jump.

Leos Carax is a keen cinephile himself. He started out writing for the renowned French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, before moving on to directing, just as his seminal influence Jean-Luc Goddard had done many years before. His films are deeply informed by earlier works, counting Hitchcock, Goddard, Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson as aesthetic progenitors. The early stuff is very much young man’s movie-making, centred on star-crossed lovers stamping on each other in their rush to get out so many feelings. Mauvais Sang takes on the trappings of a peculiar thriller, but is most concerned with the growing infatuation between Alex (Denis Lavant) and Anna (Juliette Binoche). The pair continue their romance, Lavant as Alex, Binoche as Michèle, in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, portraying two homeless people who find each other and a strange almost-happiness on the abandoned, under-repair Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris. In both films the two share many remarkable moments, and it’s Carax’s visual flourishes that are most memorable. A lateral tracking shot to music, full of dance and energy, becomes a common motif. In Mauvias Sang, Lavant runs solo through the streets to the pounding beat of David Bowie’s “Modern Love”. He tops the scene with Les Amants, when Lavant and Binoche dance across the bridge to the strains of Iggy Pop, Tchaikovsky and hip-hop as the fireworks of the 1989 Bicentennial celebrations erupt in the night sky above them. At the end of Mauvais Sang, Binoche runs across an airfield in a sped-up, saturated shot, desperate to break free of her heart’s and gravity’s confines.

Holy Motors goes even further into pure cinema, following the strange journeys of Monsieur Oscar as he is chauffeured across Paris from one acting performance to another. Denis Lavant is incredible as the shape-shifting actor whose portrayals are paid for by some mysterious organization, but are to an audience that is never clear, unless it is simply everyone that happens to see it. He plays everything from a businessman to a motion-capture acrobat to a flower-eating demon crashing a photoshoot in a cemetery. The sequences are extraordinary and unforgettable, from the limb-stretching embrace of two motion-capture lovers to Lavant’s encounter with a mysterious old flame (Kylie Minogue) as she breaks into song on the rooftop of the Samaritaine department store (another motif throughout his work). Between each appearance, he returns to the limousine, transforming himself, and wearing himself down, inside its speeding shell.

Don’t try this at home, or virtually.

The paroxysms that drive Carax’s work seem to strain against the limits of time and the body, but it’s never all angst either. Humour and Chaplin-esque physical gags keep things from becoming too morose, and part of the fun is waiting to see in what direction a film will careen next. A superb built-in intermission during Holy Motors follows Lavant playing an accordion with a troop of musicians through a rail station. It’s great fun and the verve of the performances are delightful. That said, there is a melancholy undercurrent to the film, with its clips of early cinema, and references to changing technology, that a kind of filmmaking is passing. But at the same time it opens a door to new avenues of expression. While in the earlier films Carax’s characters strain for flight, Holy Motors is oddly grounded in its own roving way. With all its digressions and diversions, it seems to say the performance is the thing, this moment of life that we’re living. Momentum shapes us, but reflection reveals how we’ve changed, and as we motor from one scene to the next, it shows us what we might become.

Modern Love: The Films of Leos Carax runs this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, from August 9th-13th. The full schedule can be found here.

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2 Replies to “Escape Velocity: The Films of Leos Carax”

  1. When I heard about it being the most expensive French film prodecud due to the replica made of Paris’ famous Pont Neuf bridge, I have wanted to see how they had put it together. It made me think of the poignant Twelve Angry Men how it was simply set on one location, and it’s focuses on the actors involved, expression, lives, moods, and feelings, than extravagant effects that you tend to see in modern day films. Hats off to Binoche, who I would not have recognised, playing a down and out, with the loss of her eyesight was brutally raw, as you see the angry, the lost of her soul and normal life through her walk, tone and actions of sleeping rough and just getting by each day to find somewhere to sleep and money for food. The contrast of her lighting up when she is sketching with concentrated passion and when she is having fun dancing with Alex. Truly a lovely film, bonded by friendship and humanity to help one another.

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