The interview subjects strewn throughout Tessa Louise-Salomé’s lovingly and elegantly produced Mr. X—connoisseurs, promoters, and collaborators of French film director Leos Carax, whose enigmatic pseudonym accounts for the film’s title—are introduced in slumber with flickering light projected onto their faces, a likely nod to the surrealist opening of 2012’s Holy Motors in which an auditorium of filmgoers sits somnambulistically before a movie screen. If Carax’s film was suggesting that cinema consumption naturally rests somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, Louise-Salomé’s goes a step further in implying image-seduced hypnosis to be a specifically Caraxian trait, a phenomenon linked not only to viewing his movies, but also to coming in contact with this mysterious figure. “Genius,” “poet,” “the essence of cinema,” and “the shooting star of French cinema” constitute some of the high-flown terminology lobbed regularly into the ring in this auteurist documentary survey, a pretty clear sign that, whatever you think of Carax’s cinema, he’s now been officially and strategically asserted into the canon. No questions asked, please.
In the history of film criticism, such poetic proselytizing bears immediate associations with the rapturous missives of Godard and Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1960s. Mr. X’s reverent tone recalls this embryonic era for auteurism, a fitting echo given the young Carax’s warm welcome into film culture in the 1980s as a spiritual heir to the adventurous French New Wave directors. That the film’s structure, a chronological journey through Carax’s filmography spiked with anecdotes and detours, puts special emphasis on the filmmaker’s introductory one-two punch of Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang attests to the overarching notion of a genius bursting, fully formed, out of the woodwork. The man himself is witnessed here only through interview fragments and clips from his select feature-film cameos (in admirer Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely and Sharunas Bartas’s underseen The House, for instance), though as many commentators agree, Carax is already omnipresent in his body of work, albeit refracted across his various antiheroes in the spectacular form of Denis Lavant. As critic Kent Jones observes, “It’s almost like you’re seeing someone project their dreams onto this other poetic self.”
Amid a fairly standard brew of talking heads, film clips, and playfully chosen behind-the-scenes snippets, Louise-Salomé’s key recurring visual trope—an animation of floating orbs filled with distorted images from Carax’s films, all backlit by a beaming ray of light—reinforces her film’s conception of Carax’s body of work as a universe unto itself, operating according to its own celestial logic and gravitational principles. For the Carax fan, this cinephilic immersion is comforting, but the film makes little room for thoughtful dissenters, rehashing (though eloquently) the praise already circling the director: his visionary aesthetics, his affectionate cine-references, the perception of his work as indirect autobiography. For a life beyond mere DVD supplementary material, Mr. X could use a dose of rigor to balance out its steady stream of congratulatory pit stops.