by Lawrence Garcia Film Kicking the Canon

Mauvais sang | Leos Carax

March 28, 2020

“I’ve only loved girls with dead fathers.” So says Denis Lavant’s young criminal Alex during the midpoint nocturne of Mauvais sang, the sophomore feature of one Leos Carax, born Alex Christophe Dupont in 1960, the year of Breathless. Made when the director was just twenty-five, Carax’s neo-noirish tale of a doomed love “that burns quickly but lasts forever” is undoubtedly the film of a young man — and like many such efforts it’s thus marked by a (Freudian) struggle with the father figure. It’s no coincidence that Alex’s late father is named Jean, for the legacies of French titans like Godard, Melville, and Cocteau loom large over the film. Nor is it incidental that the film’s gangster-picture plot, in which Alex must steal a vaccine of a fictional virus (known as STBO) from a futuristic high-security laboratory, eventually finds his allegiances torn between a pair of aging Europeans (one of them played by French icon Michel Piccoli) and a woman known only as The American. Mauvais sang, then, is an attempt to recreate the dream of the French New Wave — though where Truffaut once railed against le cinéma de papa, Carax displays an evident affection for his own filmic forebears, both the French directors he grew up on and the Hollywood antecedents that they venerated. For all of his youthful bluster, Carax in Mauvais sang seemed to understand what it truly meant to lose one’s breath in 1960, rightly recognizing that the dream of the ’60s, reanimated in 1986, might be something closer to a nightmare that leaves one gasping for air.

Mauvais sang, then, is an attempt to recreate the dream of the French New Wave — though where Truffaut once railed against le cinéma de papa, Carax displays an evident affection for his own filmic forebears, both the French directors he grew up on and the Hollywood antecedents that they venerated.

In this respect, Mauvais sang is a work of profound ambivalence. It’s characteristic of the film that its best-remembered scene, of Lavant dashing through an empty street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” is as ecstatic as it is self-lacerating, as rapturous as it is tortured. Undeniably, Carax’s formal inventiveness, matched only by Lavant’s dazzling dexterity, is evident in scene after furious scene: a syncopated chase with Julie Delpy through the Paris Métro; a terrifyingly composed parachute-jump sequence performed without stunt doubles; Juliette Binoche’s kaleidoscopic introduction on a bus. And his purely graphical plays with composition and montage — bold splashes of primary color against shadowy grayscale backgrounds — push the already skeletal story into giddy abstraction. (Indeed, Mauvais sang, which literally translates to “Bad Blood,” may be the most vivid illustration of Godard’s famed remark regarding Pierrot le Fou: “It’s not blood, it’s red.”) But the film’s defining aspect is that it conveys an acute sense of exhaustion alongside its evident thrill at cinema’s expressive possibilities; its sense of discovery is always tense, uneasy, and far from settled. In some respects, it’s unsurprising that Carax was grouped alongside contemporaries like Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix as embodying the cinéma du look, a designation coined in 1989, meant to highlight a pernicious preponderance of slick style. But in the case of Mauvais sang, at least, this criticism fails to account for the complex relationship between Carax’s own aesthetic approach, those of his contemporaries, and the cinema that he was drawing upon. The STBO virus that drives the movie’s story engine, and which is killing scores of French youths, has often been read in relation to the specter of AIDS — and not without reason. But the disease’s root cause, “loving without love,” might be more useful in illuminating Carax’s personal convictions regarding his chosen medium. In a Cahiers du cinéma interview published around the film’s release, he puts the matter plainly: “Mauvais sang is a film which loved cinema, and which doesn’t love today’s cinema.” In other words: If the problem was that the films of his day embodied this state of “loving without love,” then Mauvais sang was his attempt at finding a cure for this epidemic condition. The film’s fatalistic endpoint suggests a filmmaker who would rather die than compromise in that goal; his subsequent career bears this out resolutely.


Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.

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