Perhaps the most soaring, touching moment in last year’s Holy Motors — a movie steeped in melancholy yet gloriously alive — occurs when Kylie Minogue’s character sings, “Who were we/When we were/Who we were/Back then?” The answer to this question from Leos Carax’s fifth film is discovered while watching his second, Mauvais Sang (1986), a salute, at once moody and ebullient, to the cinema of the past and the ferocious intensity of youth.
Mauvais Sang — or “Bad Blood,” a title shared with the second section of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell — was released in France just a few days after Carax had turned 26 and certified him as the nation’s reigning enfant terrible. Like its predecessor, Boy Meets Girl (1984), Mauvais Sang, nominally a neo-noir set in Paris in the near future, is deeply in thrall to the masters of Nouvelle Vague, particularly Jean-Luc Godard. But Carax’s endlessly romantic film transcends homage (and plot, for that matter); above all, his work captures ineffable states of being.
Those outsize emotions are housed in the peewee, pliable body of Denis Lavant, less than a year younger than Carax and the writer-director’s acknowledged alter ego. Lavant has starred in four of Carax’s five films, the exception being 1999’s Pola X. In Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang, and The Lovers on the Bridge (1991), the actor plays a character named Alex (Carax’s real first name); in Holy Motors, he is called Oscar (his creator’s middle name). A most unlikely yet most unforgettable leading man, the simian, sinewy Lavant remains the most kinetic actor of the past 30 years, his supple physical performances recalling those of the silent-era greats. (Lavant was cast as Charlie Chaplin in Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine’s 2007 paean to celebrity impersonators.)
“He’s good with his hands,” gangster Marc (Michel Piccoli, the French cinema titan who also has a cameo in Holy Motors) says of Alex. The criminal is a former associate of Alex’s father, now dead after being pushed — or jumping — in front of a Metro train; Marc hopes to entice the young conjurer and card shark to join his latest caper: stealing the vial that contains the culture of STBO, a disease that kills “those who make love without love.” (However discomfiting today, the allusion to AIDS — and its “bad blood” — was one of the first in cinema.) Alex warns Lise (Julie Delpy, just 16 when filming began), the girlfriend he is leaving for good before meeting up with Marc, always to use a condom with her future lovers. He exhorts her: “Forget me. Be admirable.” Though brusque, that directive exemplifies Carax’s talent for constructing aphorisms of the heart. “Feelings don’t cancel each other out the way they used to,” Marc says in voiceover at the beginning of the film, suggesting the surfeit of emotion to follow.
All-consuming passion is ignited once Alex sees Anna (Juliette Binoche) on a bus, only to discover that she is Marc’s lover. Binoche, Carax’s girlfriend at the time, is styled, as her character’s name implies, as a tribute to Godard’s muse Anna Karina: Her coiffure is identical to Karina’s in Vivre Sa Vie (1962); her vivid red cardigan and blue bathrobe evoke the brilliant color scheme in Pierrot le Fou (1965), one of Karina’s last films with Godard. Carax’s tribute — both to an earlier, instrumental director-actress collaboration and to the woman who was indispensable to his own project — is undeniably moving. Yet even more poignant is witnessing Binoche, barely in her twenties here, at the outset of her career. (Interestingly, both Delpy and Binoche had small roles in Godard films before Mauvais Sang.) Is it possible that Binoche, whose maximalist acting tics calcified years ago — and are most obnoxiously on view in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) — was ever this subtle, this demure?
Roughly 35 minutes pass before Anna speaks her first line: “I’m going to bed.” But before that, she and Alex share a stunning, wordless moment, tethered together during a parachute jump (a feat performed without stunt doubles). As we watch them float somewhere above the countryside outside Paris, this lavish spectacle becomes the perfect expression of the enormity of Alex’s infatuation. His feelings grow so uncontainable that he tries to expel them bodily, or at least outrun them: In the film’s signature, still-electrifying scene (to which Noah Baumbach nods in Frances Ha), Alex springs out of the room where he’s been talking to Anna, racing, leaping, and cartwheeling down a nighttime street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The pleasure he takes in movement — in “the kiss of speed” — though, is complicated by self-punishment as he intermittently punches himself in the gut.
“I feast my eyes to feed my love,” Alex tells Anna at one point; the line comes closest to articulating Carax’s own filmmaking process. The declaration also recalls the devotion that Oscar, the professional chameleon in Holy Motors, still has for his exhausting, shape-shifting work, which he pursues for “the beauty of the act.” Holy Motors, Carax’s first feature in 13 years, restarted a career many feared was finished. Mauvais Sang shows us that who the director was “back then” is still who he is today: a creator of singularly expansive, breathtaking cinema.