Leos Carax’s debut feature, Boy Meets Girl, got him lumped in with the cinéma du look movement on the sheer virtue of its style, but it was obvious even then that the director didn’t really fit in with the blockbuster-obsessed likes of Luc Besson. Boy Meets Girl was far more concerned with the ongoing legacy of film history and how to update its classic forms to more modern, relevant art, a trait that’s only expanded upon with his subsequent film, Mauvais Sang, which uses slick, contemporary forms as a front for idiosyncratic renditions of everything from noir to silent slapstick.
The film seems to take place in some hideaway corner of Paris that never got properly rebuilt after the war, where a criminal hideout consists of modernist glass walls plated around peeling, blackened concrete. Dried-blood reds and plunging shadows trap the place in stasis, giving the setting a sense of rot matched by the aged con men who dwell in it. Marc (Michel Piccoli) and Hans (Hans Meyer), who need to pull off a big score to settle their debts with an American woman (Carroll Brooks), who may or may not be killing all their old associates. To pull off a heist, they recruit Alex (Denis Lavant), the fast-handed son of their dead comrade, to steal a vaccine for a new STD that infects those who have sex without love.
Marc and Hans’s defeatist paranoia sets the bleak tone, and that blatant AIDS metaphor grounds the movie in its time, but it’s in the film’s portrait of the tortured, timeless longing of desperate youth that Mauvais Sang finds its richest expression. We meet Alex at the end of his noncommittal relationship with Lise (Julie Delpy) as he backs away from her unbridled passion and tries to foist her off on his smitten pal, Thomas (Jérôme Zucca). He only joins up with Marc and Hans because he’s transfixed by Marc’s young girlfriend, Anna (Juliette Binoche), who clings to Marc for the stability he represents even as the old man slowly collapses from fear. The crisscrossing lines of unrequited love quickly throw off whatever intent the narrative might have had to be a heist caper, instead drifting off into poetic notions of how the young always attempt to compensate for their own unformed, searching sense of self by defining it through an object of desire.
As such, the film is less a clear-cut story than a collection of searing, evocative images. Glass and reflections are used to communicate gulfs of emotional distance between people mere feet apart, like the small image of Alex’s face reflected in Anna’s bus window when he first encounters her, or the agonized image of Lise chasing after Alex as he attempts to flee her, culminating in him slipping onto a subway as the doors close on her, her hands and face splayed on the glass for a heartbeat before the train rockets away and leaves her behind. Everyone in the film always looks like they’re crying or just finished doing so; even one of the American woman’s hoods is first seen with a curious streak down his cheek. This is a youth movie that trades social angst for romantic anguish and largely lacks generational conflict, wringing most of its anguish from the pressures of people confessing affection for one another and receiving nothing in return.
Through a strange quirk, this thoroughly despairing film is best remembered for its scenes of pure ecstasy. The sequence in which the gang goes skydiving and Alex has to rescue Anna, who passes out from acrophobia, is a ballet set to nothing but howling wind and occasional silence, the camera softly, almost coyly circling the pair as Alex tethers her to his suit and parachutes the both of them down. Elsewhere, Alex cheers up a depressed Anna by employing various vaudeville tricks like ventriloquism, along with other feats infused with purely cinematic touches, such as his tossing of apples into the air only for a stalk of celery or various other fruits to fall back into frame. The scene culminates with the film’s defining image of youthful acting out, in which Alex defuses his pent-up romantic yearning by not so much dancing to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” but sprinting and leaping in some futile attempt to outrun his own feelings. Rooted in the character’s misery, it lives on as one of the most beautiful expressions of temporarily liberated feelings in cinema.
If such scenes live on independent of their original context, the film regularly avoids simply being its own highlight reel. Carax’s mastery of form is hard to define: The headlong rush of the editing (frequently cut on a change in lighting) generates a sense of blistering momentum at odds with the chilliness of most shots, as well as the elision of action that consistently cuts around violence to avoid stylizing brutality. The layered use of monochrome and muted color around vividly shaded characters gives the movie a sense of existing in past, present, and, in the sci-fi elements of the climax, future. Generally, the film plays its stylish exterior against itself, exposing the hollow technical skill of Carax’s nominal peers as being a corrosive element of cinema that can contain rich reservoirs of character but rarely does. Mauvais Sang dazzles with its imagery, but it’s also one of the most humanistic works of a decade that could have used more of them.
This Blu-ray edition of the film looks splendid, highlighting textures previously indiscernible on low-grade rips. (The tear stains and slightly puffy eyes on everyone’s face, for example, are only now clearly visible for those of us who had to make do with torrents all these years.) Colors are appropriately drained, which makes the fully chromatic moments all the more spellbinding, while the pale skin tones and noirish blacks are maintained with perfect contrast. The mono track is a modest one, but given that only a handful of sporadic music cues interrupt a film that is mostly dialogue and silence, it’s impossible to pick out any glaring issues with it. Just be prepared to turn up your speakers.
Silent outtakes and rushes and a deleted scene come with the Blu-ray, as well as trailers for the original theatrical release and its recent revival. The main feature, though, is the 73-minute documentary Mr. X: A Vision of Leos Carax, a somewhat simplistic but nonetheless engaging overview of the director’s career, featuring interviews with cast and crew members over the years, as well as outside admirers like Cannes president Gilles Jacob and American critics Richard Brody and Kent Jones. It’s largely a compliment-fest, but it’s difficult to object too hard to Carax getting fêted.
Leos Carax’s youth masterpiece is one of the great films of the 1980s, though thanks to Carlotta’s exceptional transfer, it’s easier than ever to appreciate the movie’s timelessness.