Why this might not be so easy
With just six features and one third of an anthology film to his name in 37 years (discounting a few shorts and music videos), director Leos Carax is far from prolific. Though he emerged in the 1980s, amid French film’s slick, stylish ‘cinéma du look’, Carax’s idiosyncratic visions and stop-start progress soon eschewed the type of audience-friendly, overtly commercial work his contemporaries Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, Betty Blue) and Luc Besson (Subway, The Big Blue) seemed to produce effortlessly.
If Carax is infatuated with cinema itself, actual cinemagoers aren’t high on his list of priorities. He’s said publicly that he makes “private films”. And famously, when asked at the Cannes press conference for his 2012 comeback Holy Motors what the public might glean from its mercurial, shapeshifting structure, Carax replied: “I don’t know who is the public. All I know is it’s a bunch of people who will be dead very soon.” Enchanté!
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‘Leos Carax’ himself wasn’t born but created. It’s an anagrammatic pseudonym for the forenames of Alex Oscar Dupont, a Parisian prodigy born in 1960 to a French father and American mother, who’d begun writing for prestigious film journal Cahiers du Cinéma as a teenager in the late 1970s. He made his first acclaimed short, Strangulation Blues (1980), shortly after, and his films reflect a deep cine-literacy. Elements of silent and early cinema bump up against French New Wave influences, as well as literature – particularly 1930s maverick Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a quotation of whose are the first words heard in his debut feature Boy Meets Girl (1984).
But Carax refracts everything through a deeply personal, almost masochistic strain of self-revelation. It’s not exactly autobiography, but his screen alter ego Denis Lavant plays a character called ‘Alex’ in each of his first three films; and his then-partners (Mireille Perrier in Boy Meets Girl, Juliette Binoche in Mauvais Sang and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) play Alex’s romantic interests.
These films highlight Alex’s stilted attempts at artistic, social and emotional connection – something many who have attempted to interview Carax over the years would no doubt recognise. Where Carax’s work rises far above self-indulgence is in the sheer invention and audacity of what he’s able to put on screen.
The best place to start – Les Amants du Pont-Neuf
In truth, any of Carax’s opening trio of features, his unofficial ‘amour fou’ trilogy would make for a decent introduction to his work. Boy Meets Girl’s lustrous monochrome, dazed-and-confused youth drama is an auspicious introduction to his dizzying talents, intent on bold diversions and longueurs rather than narrative drive. 1986’s Mauvais Sang shares some of these divergences, but is also a vibrant, quasi-sci-fi-thriller-romance about a sexually transmitted disease passed on when people have loveless intercourse. The central trio of Lavant’s awkward loner, Binoche’s infatuated moll, and veteran Michel Piccoli’s ageing gangster are intoxicating, and Lavant’s lovestruck sprint to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ is a classic set-piece (later shamelessly pilfered by Noah Baumbach for Frances Ha).
But it’s his third feature, an epic love story between two vagrants, set on Paris’s oldest bridge as it undergoes reconstruction, that perhaps best encapsulates Carax’s wild ambition. Forced to recreate Pont Neuf (and its surroundings) on a Montpellier lake, the film became a cause célèbre, largely due to its mammoth expense and eventual mixed critical reception.
The mix of street-level brutality and opulent romanticism is a litmus test of sorts for Carax’s work: either you dismiss it as incoherent posturing or disappear into its addictive highs (and lows), where love can be cruel and selfish as much as liberating.
Lavant and Binoche again combine to heartrending effect; her painter with failing eyesight especially poignant. And some of the visuals – Binoche water-skiing down the Seine to a backdrop of spectacular 200th anniversary Bastille Day fireworks, or a metro station tunnel ablaze with flaming posters – are the definition of showstoppers.
What to watch next
Carax hadn’t made a feature since 1999 when he roared back with Holy Motors in 2012. He reunited with Denis Lavant as chameleonic performance artist Monsieur Oscar, essaying multiple roles over the course of a single day, as he’s whisked through Paris in a limousine/dressing room by assistant Edith Scob. It’s a baffling, exhilarating film, which begins with Carax himself entering a cinema of somnambulant patrons, barrels through motion-capture sex, a Kylie Minogue musical interlude, chimpanzee child surrogates and a talking car finale that could be part of a deranged Pixar sequel.
Replete with cinematic allusions (most overtly, Scob wearing her Eyes Without a Face mask), it’s not just Carax reinvigorating his own art after several stalled projects, but somehow he’s reinventing notions of role-playing, bio-technology and cinema itself. It’s his masterpiece and one of this century’s great films.
Carax’s numerous, great music-led scenes – Mauvais Sang’s Bowie-scored euphoria, the Pont-Neuf Bastille Day carnival and Holy Motors’ bravura ‘Entr’acte’ accordion sequence – all hinted that he had a full-on musical in him. That would be his latest, and his first English-language film, Annette, though naturally it’s his own twisted genre take.
Adopting a spoken-sung, rock-operatic score from art-pop duo Sparks, the film charts the tempestuous, ill-fated love affair between alpha male stand-up comedian Henry (Adam Driver) and demure star soprano Ann (Marion Cotillard), and their eponymous young child with a special talent. Annette herself is played by a wooden puppet, another thrilling example of Carax’s go-for-broke, dream logical, self-indicting methods (Driver’s final appearance is as an uncanny dead ringer for his director). It’s spectacular, often ludicrous, wholly divisive – and must-see viewing.
Where not to start
1999’s Pola X is based on Herman Melville’s 1850s novel Pierre, or, the Ambiguities, a psychological study of a spoilt, wealthy young man in thrall to his possessive mother and a dangerous relationship with his half-sister. Carax’s only literary adaptation updates the setting and again dares to challenge narrative conventions and tonal consistency. But despite committed performances from Guillaume Depardieu and Carax’s then-partner, the late Yekaterina Golubeva, it’s an often opaque, frustrating film, though one whose initially infamous reputation is gradually being rehabilitated.
Also interesting, though perhaps not essential, is Carax’s episode in 2008’s triptych anthology film Tokyo! (alongside Michel Gondry and Bong Joon Ho). It’s a freewheeling, often shocking introduction to Denis Lavant’s ‘Merde’, a subterranean, green-suited troll raising havoc on unwitting bystanders through the Japanese capital. A daring provocation, it’s also perhaps easier to first try Merde’s shorter, equally deranged escapades in his own dedicated Holy Motors section.