With his monumental ’90s bookends, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Pola X, Leos Carax reinvented the art of the ridiculous sublime—a thrilling alchemical process unique in contemporary cinema, translating morbid romanticism into convulsive rapture. The French director’s first two films, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986), are more mannered whimsies, buoyed by a gentler strain of movie-love delirium. The middle entry in his progressively more flamboyant amour fou trilogy (in relation to which the epic self-immolations of Pola X stand as both hyperbolic distortion and gale-force rebuttal), Mauvais Sang is in many ways his most purely delightful work—bittersweet, haunting, and as original and eccentric as homage movies get, infusing arch neo-Godard poetics with grace notes cribbed from Griffith, Chaplin, and Cocteau.
In each of Carax’s first three films, the great actor-acrobat Denis Lavant plays a character called Alex (the director’s given name). Here, he’s a cardsharp who, after the suicide of his petty-hood father, leaves his worshipful teenage girlfriend, Lise (Julie Delpy), to help out Dad’s old cronies (Michel Piccoli and Hans Meyer). Canned paranoia laces the mock-blockbuster premise: The mysterious STBO epidemic is killing off thousands of Parisians (“lovers who make love without feeling love”), and Alex must, for some reason, steal a “box of microbes.” The heart of the film—set largely during a midwinter heat wave—is the flirtatious relationship between Alex and the Piccoli character’s girlfriend, Anna (Juliette Binoche). In the extended centerpiece, the two spend one long, restless night together—a daisy chain of confidences and seductions (Alex asks Anna, “Do you believe in a love that comes quickly—that strikes quickly—but which lasts forever?”).
Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier employs a beautifully rigorous Mondrian palette (a near monochrome color scheme with strategic daubs of primary hues, mostly red) and lavishes fetishistic attention on Lavant’s puckish features and Binoche’s serene visage. The noir and crime-caper elements, not to mention the problematic sci-fi-inflected AIDS allegory, are so flatly rendered as to be beside the point—as story lines almost always are in Carax’s exalted cinema of velocity and sensation. As with all his films, this is chiefly a movie of pulse-quickening epiphanies, a somehow cohesive succession of lovely curiosities and intoxicating derangements: Lise chasing Alex into the metro, the pursuit unfolding in rhythmic intercuts; Alex performing a series of magic tricks for Anna as she peeks out from behind an array of colorful tissues; the surreal, shirtless nighttime drive; the daredevil parachute sequence, prefiguring Pont-Neuf‘s water skis; and some 14 years before his “Rhythm of the Night” exorcism in Beau Travail, Lavant finding similar release in David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” As the song comes on the radio, he staggers out onto the sidewalk as if in pain and lurches forward spastically before breaking into a full sprint, with cartwheels and pirouettes thrown in—an ecstatic bid for freedom that Binoche duplicates in the transcendent final shot.