When lighting cigarettes, characters in Mauvais sang (1986) never shield the flame from wind. The smoke doesn't dissipate, but slithers away in tendrils. The air hangs, heated by an overpassing Halley's Comet that turns the cobblestone streets into a fire-walk. The male characters conduct their business shirtless, sometimes wrestling with a homoeroticism more Greek than closeted. A city-wide suicide spree, exacerbated but maybe not caused by the AIDS-like retrovirus "STBO", leaves alive only thieves, fare-hoppers, vandals, gangsters. They inhabit Jean-Pierre Melville's exsanguinated Paris, designed as a hermetic MGM backlot. Red leaks down the walls. Holed up in an old butcher's shop, three thieves plan their last big score: stealing a serum to STBO. The money will allow them to escape the city and their debt to a rival gang. They spend the days leading up to the heist planning for everything from the target's red-laser security system to their own volatile romantic desires.
This month, MUBI will play a double feature devoted to French director Leos Carax (the "real assumed name" of Alex Cristophe Dupont): Mauvais sang, the near-perfect successor to his already-superb feature debut, Boy Meets Girl (1983); and Mr. X, a Vision of Leos Carax (2014), a retrospective documentary. Through interviews with collaborators, patrons, and critics, lit with appropriate eeriness, Mr. X is not quite a correction to sacrificial histories of Carax's career and persona. It's more of an alternate mythology. In the aftermath of the chaotic production of his third film, Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), critics created a tempestuous figurehead of outdated auteurism to deride along with his enablers. In Mr. X, director Tessa Louise-Salomé instead envisions Carax as an imp-philosopher beset by tragedies economic and mortal. While his career is now in its third decade, his short filmography highlights a death-inflected professional life. Jean-Yves Escoffier, a brilliant cinematographer and Carax's close friend, died in 2003; he defined the different textures of each film in the "Alex trilogy," the informal grouping of Carax's first three features that each starred Denis Lavant as an authorial proxy named Alex. Soon after, both lead actors in Pola X (1999), to one of whom Carax dedicated Holy Motors (2012), also passed away. Then there are the cryptic references to fatalities during the making of Les amants. These, as well as overextended productions and hostile receptions, led to lengthy and only partially voluntary gaps between the director's films. It will never be obvious that Carax will give us another film. Mr. X attempts to explain why, and offers evidence that his filmography is already an embarrassment of riches.
Watching Mauvais sang, it's hard to disagree. Critics often consider it Carax's masterpiece. In Mr. X, critic Richard Brody remembers his first impression of the film as "a work of pure cinematic ecstasy... I didn't know that a contemporary filmmaker could be so uninhibitedly poetic." Not only is Carax's poetic impulse uninhibited, the poetry itself is totally unfettered from a dominant system. Mauvais sang's sense of symbolism is Cubist. Dozens of discrete signs and motifs stack, overlap, recombine, adhere, toppling over each other. It's exhilarating—and not only for the audience: watch Alex/Lavant/Carax careening down the street, frenzied with desire for his partner-in-crime's young lover, Anna (Juliette Binoche, flirty and unselfconscious like the Anna Karina her bob cut cites).
As chance would have it, Bowie's "Modern Love" plays on a radio that somehow never falls out of earshot. Alex abandons a chamber drama for a musical, Lavant's energetic precision a form a genius, running against a wall that stutters like film frames. He becomes one of Brakhage's insect wings, nearly outpacing what contains him.
He fails to escape though—the production design team does peerless work to create an imprisoning world. At the end of the thieves' narrow street, primary-color advertisements set into gray concrete have been vandalized into abstraction. In their living quarters, the walls are a mosaic map, rhyming with the diagram of Paris drawn above Alex's bed in Boy Meets Girl. But here, some of the arrondissements are marked with red. To light the hideout's eggshell-and-boot-polish colors, Escoffier intensifies lush, Golden Age diffusion into high-contrast noir setups. Skin appears soft and pallid, vampiric. When Anna remembers drinking her boyfriend's blood, it's not information but confirmation of the film's fervid, Gothic eroticism. The long lead-up to the crime pulses with incest, homosexuality, the pleasures of watching and being watched from the shadows and in broken mirrors.
Anna reveals her transgression during the film's centerpiece, an overnight courtship in 35 minutes. Alex and Anna converse in conspiratorial whisper, as though afraid that they might overhear themselves. Love speaks in the manner of thieves. In a heist film in which the payload is a serum for STBO, a virus infecting those who "make love without love," drinking blood is suicidal play. While the metaphorical reference to AIDS reads as fairly cavalier today, STBO is one of the few ways that Mauvais sang should be watched as a movie made in 1986. Deliberate cinematic anachronism takes the film out of time, but the ambiguity of STBO's etiology is a terrifying symptom of the misinformation and ignorance surrounding AIDS at the time. The pathological correlations signify less than the film's desperate tenor, pitched between melancholy and defiance. Paris is a city of voyeurs, afraid to touch.
As a strange consequence, the film is full of doppelgangers. Mereille Perrier, Alex's inamorata in Boy Meets Girl, appears on a bus as Anna's pixie prolepsis, as does an unnamed woman Alex follows down an alley; Alex, his friend Thomas, and an unnamed voyeur (played by Carax, leering at his then-lover Binoche) bear deep resemblances, physically and in their infatuations. Alex's jacket turns him into an 8 of diamonds and, as in the three-card Monte he deals for tertiary income, he is shuffled around until someone picks him. Bodies are traded until a chance bond generates the vaccination to STBO. Love is not learning, but random combinations of people that win or lose.
Thus, any decision becomes a fatal gamble. In a Carax film, going anywhere in particular often proves lethal: the first death in Mauvais sang occurs on the Métro tracks, the last during a car chase. The film's most famous scene is really half of one: YouTube clips tend to leave out that "Modern Love" drops away just as Alex stops and runs back to Anna. She only manages an Ovidian sort of immortality, metamorphosing into a plane that never takes off, running akimbo down an airstrip.
Carax sometimes takes knocks for his obsession with the past, but he's really obsessed with the present, that is to say, everything currently available to us. His films exhibit little interest in the future, and even Holy Motors is more a state-of-cinema address than a fearful prediction. He makes optimistic denials of the future that look like anarchy, nihilism, the work of an enfant terrible. But to Carax, no section of society, particularly not filmmakers and lovers, has so fully accounted for the present that forward-thinking is not itself a type of nihilism—a belief that the present is basically worthless. In his films, it is always to soon to be thinking of the future. Mauvais sang's science-fiction trappings drift away in the heat of the moment: people sweating in Paris, declaring love to each other, the old men using electric razors and the young lovers playing aging with shaving-cream beards.