There’s nothing in recent memory quite like Merde. Defiantly pushing the bounds of good taste, reveling in its own sense of outrageousness, Leos Carax’s short film—the middle segment of the multi-director triptych Tokyo!—is the best kind of provocation: an act of incitement performed for the pure pleasure of the thing. In this regard, Carax’s stance is a lot like that of his hero. As the titular character arises from his subterranean home to terrorize the Tokyo citizenry, everyone tries to explain his anomalous presence (the Americans link him to Al Qaeda, the Japanese to the Aum cult), but despite the tantalizing tease Carax gives us of leftover military equipment from Japan’s 1937 China campaign in the character’s underground cave, Merde’s actions can’t be accounted for by any existing political context, only by his generalized hatred for humanity.
As embodied by the brilliant Denis Lavant, done up with a turned-out eyeball and wispy, red beard, Merde is a truly inspired creation. Introduced through a series of street-level tracking shots, the character shuffles his way down the pavement garbed in only a tatty green suit, grabbing crutches from handicapped people, spitting on babies, and shoving money down his throat before descending back to the sewer from where he came. The scene’s an exhilarating rush of pure cinema, Carax’s camera pulling back to keep pace with its relentless subject who, like his director, bulldozes through any considerations of propriety with a disregard so pronounced and a sense of disgust so evenly distributed among its targets, that it finally proves liberating.
But for pure over-the-top moviemaking, the opener is surpassed by the film’s climactic set piece, a trial scene in which the captured creature outrages a sternly decorous Tokyo courtroom with both his appearance and his pronouncements. Communicating in his own unique language, a sort of high-pitched squeal combined with grunts and violent hand gestures, Merde’s responses come to the English-speaking viewer at a four-language remove. Translated into French by the only person who understands him, a hot-shot lawyer whose turned-out eye and red beard matches his client’s (Jean-François Balmer), then into Japanese for the court, and finally into English through the film’s subtitles, Merde’s pronouncements become that much more outrageous when filtered through such a convoluted distancing. So when he makes perhaps his most potentially offensive statement—comparing the eyes of Japanese people to a “woman’s sex”—the time delay between his pronouncement and the court’s shocked response only adds to the general absurdity of Carax’s tour-de-force staging. Although Merde is quickly condemned for his domestic terrorism, the trial never succeeds in explaining his actions. The most telling moment remains an exchange early on in the proceedings which takes us as close to the heart of the matter as we’re likely to get. “Why do you attack innocent people?” the court asks. Merde’s response is both straightforward and deeply unsettling: “I don’t like innocent people,” he says.
If the other two segments inevitably fall short of Carax’s inspired achievement, they’re certainly not without their pleasures. Michel Gondry’s entry, Interior Design, which kicks off the film, is a particularly worthy offering, replete with the director’s offbeat bits of invention. Both a ode to/parody of independent filmmaking and a story of a woman finding her proper place in the world, the segment begins with a young provincial couple driving through a crowded Tokyo street in the rain. Gondry shoots the scene with the cheeseball noir tones of a B-monster movie and voiceover narration quickly establishes the segment as an apocalyptic scarefest. Soon revealed as a false start (it turns out the man, an aspiring filmmaker who sees everything in terms of cinematic possibilities, is simply pitching the horror scenario for his girlfriend’s amusement), this beginning nonetheless establishes a world where the lives of the characters, directly or indirectly, are ruled by the movies.
With her boyfriend obsessed with his filmmaking career, the young woman soon begins to feel superfluous. Gondry both pokes fun at and celebrates the man’s ambitions—when we see clips from his film, it’s filled with both tired art-film conventions and some odd moments of inspiration, like a scene of a woman giving birth to a rabbit (shot from the point of view of the rabbit!)—but it’s clear that they take their toll on the relationship. Gondry’s sympathies rest mostly with the woman and the final moments of the segment follow that character as she negotiates her place in the world thanks to the introduction of an odd magical realist touch (derived from a Gabrielle Bell graphic novel) that seems a tad too self-consciously quirky to quite work in this context but which allows the director to satisfyingly concoct a scenario where the woman is able to achieve her long-sought sense of purpose.
The film’s final segment, Bong Joon-ho’s Shaking Tokyo—a half-baked scenario about a shut-in leaving his home for the first time in 10 years to pursue a woman—is certainly the weakest entry in the triptych, but even this piece gets over on the director’s visual invention, particularly evident in his set design and lighting. The central setting is imagined as a mass of perfectly arranged piles, stacks of empty pizza boxes, books, and toilet paper rolls forming the concrete geometry of the lead character’s home. The house is suffused as well with a golden glow, unevenly distributed across the setting; since the sunlight seeping through the windows is the shut-in’s only gauge of the outside world, it’s appropriate that this light registers as such a felt presence. When the man finally walks outside, Bong floods the screen with a bright, overexposed whiteness, blinding the viewer along with the character. This decision to tell the story in terms of lighting is the director’s shrewdest move, but even this visual understanding can’t quite overcome the segment’s conclusion, a conceit that combines the quirky and the sentimental to particularly ill effect. Still, though Tokyo! may go out with a whimper, it would take a far more inept conclusion to undo the memory of Denis Lavant’s ravaged and ravaging creature, a creation that sticks in the mind far beyond the film’s final frame and singlehandedly justifies the project.