“I feel that cinema is my country. But it’s not my business.” – Léos Carax
French filmmaker Léos Carax has intrigued critics right from the start of his career. Film scholars were so moved by his poetic visual narratives that they called him a latter-day Rimbaud and an enfant terrible. Although he began his journey as a director by making a series of short films, it wasn’t until his feature film debut Boy Meets Girl that people started noticing he had a fresh creative perspective.
Carax has only made five feature films over the course of his career but each one is a manifestation of bold and unique artistic sensibilities. After yet another long hiatus, he is set to return to the world of cinema with the musical drama Annette which will star Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
In an interview, Carax said, “The three first films I made in the ‘80s, they belong together in a way, especially the two first ones, because I was really discovering cinema the same time I was making films. So they were films but also love letters to cinema, saying thank you, thank you, you saved me. After my second film I thought I had paid my debts to cinema, I can go my own way.”
He also acknowledged, “I’ve never had box office success, but my films travel. They’ve been shown on DVDs or whatever, they have perspective. So I have traveled with the films, all over the world. And I find that the further I go from home, the more interesting it is for me to talk or to show to people. That’s something I discovered.”
On his 60th birthday, we revisit 5 of Léos Carax’s best films as a tribute to the experimental filmmaker’s contribution to the world of cinema.
Léos Carax’s 5 best films ranked:
5. Pola X (1999)
Loosely based on the Herman Melville novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, this 1999 romantic drama follows a young successful author who abandons everything when a strange woman tells him that she is his sister. They begin a romantic relationship as a challenge to the normative dynamics of civilised society. Due to the transgressive nature of the film, it is often associated with the New French Extremity movement.
Carax elaborated, “The film was thought to be in three parts, three chapters. There’s the one chapter in the countryside, called ‘In the Light.’ I knew this chapter would be light, it would be green and white, green for nature.”
He added, “I dyed all of the actors’ hairs blonde and put them in white shirts. So I was trying to find a way to expose this young girl in a shot that would be really white and surrounded by green. So the film is going from light to darkness and rust.”
4. Boy Meets Girl (1984)
Carax’s brilliantly passionate debut film, Boy Meets Girl was also his first collaboration with Denis Lavant and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier. The 1984 drama revolves around a depressed, aspiring filmmaker who falls in love with a suicidal woman. This central subject of tortured romance would go on to be a recurring theme in Carax’s works.
The filmmaker recalled, “I started making films when I was young, and at the time it was a compete bluff. I had never made a movie. I had studied films but I had never been on the set of one. When I made my first film, I had hardly ever seen a camera before, and I was a young man when I arrived in Paris from the suburbs.
“At the time, I didn’t talk much. I was very shy, so the bluff served me. I was telling people that I had no money, and that I knew how to make films, but I had no proof. I was lucky to find people who believed in me.”
3. Holy Motors (2012)
An interesting commentary on the performative nature of cinema, Carax’s latest work features Denis Lavant as Mr Oscar. He is a man who plays different roles, from an assassin to a beggar, but nobody seems to acknowledge his performances. Holy Motors is an intense and bizarre mediation on the cinematic medium. it is fiercely original and questions just about everything.
While speaking about the film, Carax said, “I spent so little time imagining the film. The whole thing took two weeks. It was a race. I didn’t watch my dailies; I didn’t read exactly what I was doing. I only went over it at the editing table. Although I don’t make films for anybody, I do make films, therefore I do make them for someone: I make them for the dead.
“But then I show them to living people that I start to think about while I’m editing — who’ll watch them? So I start to get more reflexive at the editing table. Why did I imagine this science-fiction word? I did invent a genre that doesn’t exist. But I don’t have the real answers.”
2. The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)
Set around the Pont Neuf, Paris’s oldest bridge, while it was closed for repairs, The Lovers on the Bridge features two young vagrants, a homeless circus performer called Alex who is addicted to sedatives (played by Denis Lavant) and a young painter who is slowly going blind (Juliette Binoche). As her vision gets worse, she becomes more dependent on Alex. The Lovers on the Bridge is Carax’s impressionistic thesis on the existence of love in a bleak and depraved universe.
Denis Lavant said, “When you make or shoot a film it’s like going out to sea on a boat and you have to trust the captain because you know that you might face a storm or rocks. With Leos, it’s not always an easy journey, as happened with [The Lovers on the Bridge], where we really felt like a crew of people doing forced labour.”
Adding, “There was a time when we totally lost sight of our goals and we could no longer understand what was real, what was fiction and what was the aim of the characters. It was a true madness.”
1. Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax – 1986)
This 1986 film by French filmmaker Leos Carax (who was 26 when he made it) imagines a society that is ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease. The disease is called STBO and it is spread by having sex without emotional involvement, and most of its victims are teenagers who make love out of curiosity rather than commitment.
The dystopian explorations of Mauvais Sang bears a striking similarity to Godard’s unique interpretation of the science fiction genre, Alphaville (1965). Like Alphaville, Carax shows us a world where human relations are fragile and where humanity has lost all faith. The volatility of the editing, theatrical elements in the scenes and the dispersed narrative seem to be highly influenced by the French New Wave.
Carax explained: “I in no way feel contemporary with the films which are coming out . . . Mauvais Sang is a film which loved cinema, and which doesn’t love today’s cinema. And that’s important to me. Not to isolate myself or to be badly thought of by other filmmakers, but so that it is seen for what it is by the people who will love it.”