Following his 1984 debut Boy Meets Girl, Leos Carax returned two years later with the second of what would be later known as ‘The Alex Trilogy’ of movies. Centring around the complex love stories of the eponymous rogue character (played once again by a fresh-faced Denis Lavant), Mauvais Sang (or ‘Bad Blood’, in English) sees Carax stepping out of the Cinémathèque Française’s archives and come up with his own perspective on the French avant-garde.
Carax isn’t much of a storyteller, but he makes up for it with a delirious lyrical form, cascading and overlapping poetic conceits and pure sensation. This time around, potato-faced Denis Lavant’s Alex is sharper than the one from two years back. A petty criminal and nimble-fingered cardsharp, he earns his bread by fooling betting suckers in the alleys of Paris. When Alex’ father dies, he abandons his sixteen-year-old girlfriend Lise (a stunning Julie Delphy) and tries to start life anew. His father’s associates, Hans (Hans Meyer), Marc (Michel Piccoli), owe money to some American/Russian mobsters, so Alex puts his fast hands to the test in a big heist–to steal a serum of the recently isolated, HIV-like love virus STBO. But the workshy Alex gets distracted by Marc’s angelic girlfriend Anna (Juliette Binoche), turning Mauvais Sang from film noir, crime thriller to an romantic art-film.
Although the plot sounds very brawny and, for lack of a better word, ‘conventional’, Leos Carax’s central fixation in Mauvais Sang is the complex seduction of Alex over Anna. A man of minor proporitions, Lavant makes Alex a dominant, visceral presence that punches the air and flips over cars in the street, which is contrasted to the delicate, innocuous presence of a young Binoche as Anna. Up until the film’s close, we never fully acknowledge the depth of their complex relationship and how much, or how little, they love each other.
If he shifts from the Godard-like poetic realism trait of his previous film, Mauvais Sang sees Carax borrowing from another French visionary, Robert Bresson. It’s in the masochistic rough editing and spatial construction, but also in the restraint when it comes to violence. We hear gun shots, we see blood, but the action or charge in the crime scene is absent. It’s a vacuousness that will detach some audiences, but will leave others vicariously compelled. I’m still not sure where I sit on the fence, and I’m not sure if that’s a good sign or bad.
There’s a great deal of originality amongst all this cinephile homage, but more often than not, Carax’s experimental tendencies are problematic. Stagey acting aside, the use of music is forced and theatrical, with composing great Prokoviev’s grandiose score and David Bowie’s Modern Love soundtracking Alex’s run through Paris feeling heavy-handed to the point of Billy Elliot gaudiness. Some of the post-production colour manipulation is just plain garish too, accentuating Binoche’s rosy cheeks, red lips and blood smeared face by the end of the film.
Even still, what Carax does manage to succeed in is telling a loaded crime-romance story his own way, with a reckless regard for conventional narrative plotting that is refreshing, ostentatious and one of a kind.
You can watch Mauvais Sang in full on YouTube. There’s even subtitles for the non-Francophiles amongst us.
PS – This is the second film in my Leos Carax: Crimes Against Cinema stint. Check out my previous film here. Four more movies to go!