- Retrospective: June 2–29, 2000
- Regional Premiere: Pola X
Les Ministeres de l’art, Philippe Garrel’s 1988 valentine to his fellow post-New Wave filmmakers, ends with a curious image: Léos Carax, the youngest guy in the movie, walking intently down the street next to his shambling elder, a leash (with a bulldog on the end of it) in one hand, the longest, weightiest script in the history of cinema in the other. Garrel has set up this supposedly impromptu image nicely: two lonely artists, the older one weighted down by the sad knowledge that his audience isn’t even alive yet, that all dreams of success are in vain; the younger one doggedly angling for the moon and the stars.
Being a French filmmaker after the New Wave can be a lonely occupation—how to move into the future when the past is eternally “new” in the minds of public and critics? This time-warping dilemma is vividly dramatized in the passionate, flamboyant films of Carax, who emerged in the early 1980s as a full-blown artist, a proud member by birth, inclination, temperament, and talent in the sacred brotherhood that includes Jean Epstein, Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, and Garrel. It’s tempting in film criticism to play the influence game and divine all of the echos of other filmmakers in an artist’s work—in Carax’s case, late silent cinema, Grémillon, Godard, Bresson, Minnelli—and cling to them for dear life. After all, this is an artist for whom the cinema itself has been all-encompassing—aesthetically, morally, and even physically. But what does influence tabulation really tell us about these films, where everything before the camera seems to become enchanted, alchemically transformed? Carax’s is an alternative world of wonders, where reality is freed of its unconscious constraints. There’s a very modern form of enchantment at work in these films: tough, even violent, jaggedly asymmetrical, but wondrous all the same. At a moment’s notice, the iron resolve of Carax’s brooding characters can either wilt like a flower in the heat or erupt into the most vivid, physically intense raptures, as in the now-famous firework/water-skiing sequence from The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-neuf).
To think of Carax’s cinema is to remember a series of visions and sensations: the sound of Denis Lavant’s feet as they scrape across the floor of the bridge in Lovers, Julie Delpy soaring through the verdant countryside on her motorcycle in Bad Blood (Mauvais Sang), Lavant walking up a flight of stairs, the words of an intimate conversation with his ex-lover playing in his head in Boy Meets Girl, Katerina Golubeva’s twisting, confessional moonlit walk through the woods in Pola X. It’s a cinema of openings, sudden, sometimes shocking passages into undiscovered psychic territories. Carax’s iron-willed sensibility, which alters and reshapes absolutely everything, is visualized in his first three films by the remarkable Denis Lavant. Lavant is a singular presence, shy yet boltingly physical, boyish yet blazingly romantic. In Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood and The Lovers on the Bridge, the stance shared by the filmmaker and his actor resembles that of a boy awake when he’s supposed to be asleep, on tiptoe, intently listening for his parents, his hand gripping the handle of a door to a forbidden room that he’s determined to enter without making a sound.
Pola X, Carax’s most recent film (prefigured by the remarkable short he made for the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, Sans Titre), is a new chapter for him, in many ways. It’s his first literary adaptation (of Melville’s most eccentric novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities), his first film without his one-time alter ego Lavant (the lead is played by Guillaume Depardieu) and without cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (the film was shot by the brilliant Eric Gaultier, who also photographed Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep and Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument). And it is a more exploratory film, less willing to settle on magic, the better to articulate a painfully adult form of confusion. No less grand or romantic than Carax’s previous work, Pola X is a profoundly disenchanted film, and a very personal one as well.
Although there’s quite a bit of inflated bluster in modern cinema, there aren’t many grand gestures. Over the last few years, we’ve gotten into the habit of associating artistry with smaller films, and giving up on the idea of genuine, transporting grandeur, discounting the momentary transformation that can be bought with truckloads of money and technicians (in a word, Titanic). So it’s all the more urgent that we pay attention and tribute to Léos Carax, whose films blaze across the screen and leave an enduring impression on the mind’s eye.
Kent Jones is the Associate Director of Programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and contributing editor to Film Coment.