The Leos Carax collection brings together three of the four films that Carax has thus far completed over the course of his troubled twenty-five year career; proving that despite a number of creative setbacks and an occasional lack of empathy and compassion for his characters, he remains a bold, imaginative and completely uncompromising talent.
Carax, along with contemporaries Luc Besson (The Last Battle, Subway, Le Femme Nikita) and Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, The Moon in the Gutter, Beatty Blue) made a name for himself in the early-to-mid nineteen-eighties; emerging from the short-lived "cinema du look" movement with a pair of quirky and melancholic romantic fantasy films, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986), before taking his central themes of unrequited love and alienated Parisian youth to the next conceivable level with the film Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf (1991). That particular film was supposed to be one that would finally introduce Carax to a wider cinematic audience; finding the filmmaker refining his usual themes and structural preoccupations with a larger budget and much in the way of creative freedom. Sadly, things didn't go to plan; the eventual film - a wildly uneven though often quite captivating blend of romantic folly and violent social realism - went massively over-budget and over-schedule before finally limping out with a limited release almost half a decade after Carax had initially started the project.
As with the aforementioned Besson and Beineix, Carax's work is high on style and short on plot; often seeming like a collection of random scenes, linked by one or two reoccurring characters, that accumulate over the course of the film's duration to create a kind of whole. His approach to filmmaking is very much akin to Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, in the sense that the film is created from a brief outline and then improvised in the same way that a sculptor or a painter will work, often impressionistically, until a form begins to take shape. Carax however doesn't quite have the narrative scope or the sense of control of someone like Wong, or indeed, Mike Leigh; with many of his scenes feeling formless and disconnected while his characters remain vague and curiously unsympathetic throughout. These are the major flaws we encounter with Carax's work, and those who are unable to look past the loose structures and wandering approach to narrative will no doubt find much of the director's first two films completely unwatchable - which is a real shame, as they're both striking and unconventional examples of the cinema du look movement at its most disarming; mixing elements of the Nouvelle Vague with film noir, silent comedy, existentialism and references to early 80's pop culture.
Carax's first film, Boy Meets Girl (1984) typifies this approach, taking the very essence of Jean-Paul Satre's La Nausée and filtering it through the lens of an early Jean-Luc Godard, to create a film that is both playful and romantic, but also lonely and entirely downbeat. The film was made when Carax was twenty-four years old and is very much the kind of film that a gloomy twenty-something loner would make, with its striking black and white cinematography, stylised performances, continual allusions to lost love and alienation and numerous scenes in which our hero wanders the streets, as French pop and David Bowie filter in from near-by windows and onto the soundtrack. The film would announce Carax as the enfant-terrible of the new French film scene, with his lead actor Denis Lavant becoming a sort of alter-ego type figure; re-appearing as different characters (but with the same name) in Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang and Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf. He's also aided greatly by cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, whose use of long tracking shots, imaginative compositions and expressionistic lighting makes Boy Meets Girl one of the most visually stunning films of the 1980's; probably falling somewhere behind Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime and Coppola's One From the Heart. The problems with the film are mostly in the distance we have from the characters; never really getting the chance to know or care for them in a way that would be more beneficial to the ironically bleak and entirely unexpected climax.
Carax would refine some of these problems with his next film, Mauvais Sang (1986), also known as The Night is Young and Bad Blood respectively. The film is similar to Besson's Subway via von Trier's great Europa, in the sense that the plot is entirely secondary to the mood, style and atmosphere that the director so effortlessly creates. This time the film is in vivid colour and much of the film takes place on purposely built sets that fall somewhere between the traditional gothic architecture of the rural French streets and the cold, retro-futurist sci-fi of Gilliam's Brazil. The plot, if it can be listed as such, involves a young street punk who runs away from home and inadvertently ends up helping two elderly criminals in a plot to steal an AIDS like virus from a futuristic lab. Along the way he dodges an old adversary and the girlfriend he left behind and falls head over heels in love with the younger lover of one of the criminals he's there to help, who of course, can never really love him in return. The film is filled with striking sequences that serve no purpose to the story but are none-the-less astounding, including the near-infamous parachute jump and a remarkably giddy scene in which our hero, realising his love for the mysterious Anna (played by a luminous Juliet Binoche), runs down the street in a largely uninterrupted single tracking shot, skipping, jumping and cartwheeling to the sound Bowie's Modern Love.
It's a shame that Artificial Eye couldn't purchase the DVD rights to Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf, which is really the next place to go following the two films aforementioned. Instead we get Carax's last film, the highly controversial Pola X (1999), which is almost universally despised by viewers and critics alike... although I happen to think that it's Carax's best film yet (a more in-depth review of this film can be found on the IMDb under my additional nom-de-plum "Graham Greene").