One of the important filmmakers to emerge from France in the 1980s, Leos Carax is someone who plays by his own rules. A student of the French New Wave, Carax infuses his own sensibilities into films that explore the notion of love and connection in very unique ways. His fearlessness towards tackling different genres, along with his deep love of cinema, makes him one of the most daring filmmakers working today. In an age where studios seem content to repeat the ideas of the past, Carax is constantly trying to push things forward.
He was born Alex Oscar Christophe Dupont in Suresnes, Hauts-de-Seine, France in November 22, 1960. Dupont eventually came up with the name “Leos Carax” through the anagram of his names Alex and Oscar. Beginning his career as a film critic, Carax’s interest in the world of cinema was fueled by French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard. The way in which Godard played with narrative and created unconventional stories particularly appealed to Carax. In 1980, Carax made a short called Strangulation Blues that explored many of the dark and touching themes of love that became a staple in his later films.
Boy Meets Girl (review)
Carax’s first film revolves around two people, both dealing with heartbreak, who comes together at a party and share their experiences. Boy Meets Girl explores the severity of heartbreak as the main characters are so distraught that they want to kill themselves. While the title may straightforward, Carax’s film was not. He deviates from any kind of convention in order to tell a story that is offbeat with a sense of danger. For the lead roles of Alex and Mirielle, Carax chose newcomers Denis Lavant and Mirielle Perrier for the parts. He also got the services of renowned French cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier to shoot the film in black-and-white stock.
Boy Meets Girl made its premiere at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival as part of its International Critic’s Week section. The film received an excellent reception that ultimately led to its theatrical release in France. Though its commercial reception wasn‘t very good, the film got wonderful praise from the notorious New York Times’ critic Vincent Canby upon its American release a year later.
Mauvais Sang (review)
For his sophomore film, Carax took the theme of young love and placed it in a dark futuristic setting. Mauvais Sang involves a young criminal who is asked to steal a serum that will stop the epidemic of young people having sex without love. With Denis Lavant once again playing the lead role, the rest of the cast included Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, legendary French actor Michele Piccoli, Hans Meyer, Mirielle Perrier and Carroll Brooks. Carax got his actors to improvise many of their scenes, which proved to be fruitful in creating rich characters.
Carax also infused the production with a lot of social commentary regarding the AIDS epidemic that was becoming more public in the mid-1980s. He knew that this was a controversial choice as not a lot of films were bold enough to talk about AIDS at the time. With Jean-Yves Escoffier back on board to shoot the film, Carax gained a new collaborator in editor Nelly Quettier. This helped Carax to fully embrace his unconventional approach to the film’s narrative. Despite working with a small budget, he created a world that felt like it could have taken place in the not too-distant future. Carax even incorporated a few nods to filmmakers that inspired him. An example of this can be found in the free-form sequence where Lavant’s Alex runs around the streets of Paris, with David Bowie’s Modern Love playing in the background, as a way to express his feelings for Binoche’s Anna.
Mauvais Sang premiered in November of 1986 in France, and was a critical hit, before making its official European premiere at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival. At the festival the film won the first-ever Alfred Bauer Prize for its innovative ideas. Mauvais Sang also garnered 3 Cesar Award nominations in the categories of Best Actress (Juliette Binoche), Best Cinematography, and Most Promising Newcomer (Julie Delpy).
The Lovers on the Bridge (review)
After back-to-back critical hits, Carax decided to attempt something that was bold and daring for his next project. The Lovers on the Bridge revolves around the turbulent relationship between a drug-addicted street performer (Denis Lavant) and a painter (Juliette Binoche), who is going blind, as they live in the Pont-Neuf bridge on the eve of the French Bicentennial. While Carax didn’t initially get the permission to shoot on the Pont-Neuf bridge during its re-construction, he had a backup plan to re-create a similar bridge near the town of Lansargues. Fortunately Carax was able to get permission to shoot on the Pont-Neuf bridge for a limited amount of time. However, Lavant’s injury during filming forced the production halt for some time.
Lavant’s injury was one of the many problems the production faced. Construction on the model bridge that was to be used for the part of the shooting wasn’t completed because it was damaged in a storm. The cost of the numerous delays made the film one of the most expensive French productions at the time. The delays forced Juliette Binoche to turn down many offers including a role in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique.
Though The Lovers on the Bridge eventually finished production in December of 1990, the film’s final cost was an astronomical $28 million. The film made its premiere at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and played out of competition. Despite getting a warm reception at the festival, the film opened in October of that same year to rave reviews. A commercial failure, it took nearly eight years for The Lovers on the Bridge to receive a limited art house release in the U.S. The struggles with production, and the poor box office, did a lot of damage to Carax’s reputation. Regardless, there were many who still consider it to be his best work.
Sans Titre (short)
In 1997, Carax was asked by the Cannes Film Festival to make a short to celebrate its 50th Anniversary. The short was a surreal journey that incorporated the celebratory aspects of the festival, natural disasters, and films from the past. Carax used Sans Titre to officially announce his next project, Pola X, by slipping in clips of his upcoming feature film into the short.
Pola X (review)
It took several years for the controversy surrounding The Lovers on the Bridge to die down. Entering into the New French Extremity era of French cinema, where the limits of what was considered extreme was constantly being pushed, Carax’s next film definitely got people talking. Loosely adapting Herman Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, Pola X revolves around a successful young novelist, Pierre, who meets and falls for a young woman, Isabelle, claiming to be his sister. The film not only tackles the notion of identity, but Carax also furthered Melville’s exploration of the deep layers of incest.
Carax decided to hire Russian actress Yekaterina Golubeva for the role of Isabelle after discovering her in the films of Claire Denis. Guillaume Depardieu took the role of Pierre and Catherine Deneuve was cast in the role of Pierre’s mother Marie. The overall production was on a smaller scale than Carax’s previous feature films. The title Pola X is a reference to the number of script drafts Carax produced. Despite working on a tighter budget, he still managed to infuse unique visuals into the film. By shooting in both Normandy and Paris, Carax skillfully juxtaposed both Pierre’s idyllic world and his descent into madness. The latter of which was nicely emphasized by the music that American cult artist Scott Walker created for the film. The additional contributions from bands like Sonic Youth and Smog allowed the soundtrack to play into the unsettling world of isolation that Isabelle and Pierre ultimately endure.
Pola X made its premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and played in competion for the Palme d’Or. The film’s critical reaction was polarizing as some praised Pola X for its take on incest, while others felt it was too extreme. Though Pola X got a limited art house release in the U.S., it didn’t make a lot of money and Carax struggled to get funding for future projects.
Crystal (music video)/My Last Minute (short)
In between projects, Carax spent time working as an actor for filmmakers like Harmony Korine and Sarunas Bartas, the latter had made a brief appearance in Pola X. In 2001 he shot a music video for New Order’s song Crystal. The video involves a dog and cat playing with each other as images of ordinary objects are spliced in. A few years passed before Carax would make another short film. In 2006 he was asked to create a one-minute short for the Vienna Film Festival. The short, entitled My Last Minute, found Carax once again defying convention by turning a seemingly simple piece into something very shocking.
While struggling to develop an English-language film, that he eventually scrapped, Carax was asked to take part in an omnibus film regarding the city of Tokyo. Joining Belgian filmmaker Michel Gondry and South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, the three directors offered three unique short films that showcased different sides of Tokyo. Carax’s short film, entitled Merde turned out to be one of the most outrageous projects of his career. It centers on a mysterious man who emerges out of the sewers and wreaks havoc all over the city. The man’s escapades ultimately spark a media circus when he is eventually captured and be put on trial.
The short marked the reunion of Carax and Denis Lavant, with the latter playing the role as the strange flower eating man. Though Lavant is center of the piece, Carax gave minor roles to Jean-Francois Balmer and Julie Dreyfus who played an attorney and an interpreter respectively. Sharing the same visual effects supervisor as Gondry did for his short, Merde proved to be an enjoyable experience for Carax. Tokyo! made its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where it got an excellent reception. While Tokyo! did modestly well on the art house circuit, the film did bring Carax back into the forefront of international cinema.
Holy Motors (review)
Despite his preference for using film stock, Carax decided to shoot his next film in digital format in order to save cost. The result was Holy Motors, a film about an actor who travels around Paris in a limousine assuming various disguises to suit the roles he must play over the course of the night. The film is not only a love-letter to cinema itself but also a meditative look at human connections and mortality.
For the lead role of the chameleon Oscar, Carax once again called on his muse Denis Lavant to play the part. Effortless drifting from one disguises to the next, including the Monsieur Merde character from Tokyo!, Lavant’s performance is the glue that holds the film together. Carax also brought in Michel Piccoli, American actress Eva Mendes and Australian pop icon Kylie Minogue for small but important cameos in the film. After cutting her out of The Lovers on the Bridge, Carax gave the legendary French actress Edith Scob the very substantial part of Oscar’s chauffer/assistant. The cast help to sell the overall ambiguous tone of the film. Blurring the lines between what is real and what is fiction, Carax takes a lot of joy of playing with genre and form in the film. An example of this can be found in the wonderful intermission scene which involves Lavant playing an accordion during an elaborate tracking shot.
Holy Motors made its premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and stole the show. Walking away with the Prize of the Youth award, the film was the festival’s biggest hit. It was also a major hit with the critics as well, many of whom placed the film in their year-end “best of…” lists.
Carax’s most recent project is a two minute short, entitled Gradiva, that focuses on a naked model who bring cigarettes to the famed sculpture “The Thinker”. The short nicely showcases Carax’s sense of wit as he plays with his love for both Paris and the absurd.
Although he doesn’t make films that appeal to a wide audience, there is no question that Leos Carax is one of the important figures working in the industry today. Similar to filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel and Jean-Luc Godard, Carax is continually pushing the boundaries of what cinema can achieve. Carax’s works have become a major influence for filmmakers like Harmony Korine, Xavier Dolan, and Noah Baumbach. The latter even paid tribute to Carax in his 2012 film Frances Ha. While there hasn’t been any word on what he might do next, fans can rest assure that it was most likely be a wildly original piece of cinema.
© thevoid99 2014
Very interesting post. I haven’t seen much of Carax’s work (in fact I’ve only seen Tokyo!) so this gives me a good idea of what I’d like to try next. Cheers!
Alrighty then. I hope you get a chance to see the rest of his work and see what you think.
What was the Carax reference in Frances Ha, just out of curiosity? I think I might have recognized it but can’t recall it right now.
It’s the scene where Frances is around the streets of New York to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” which was a homage the scene in Carax’s Mauvais Sang.
Ah. Haven’t seen that one, but I think I had heard about the reference – perhaps that’s why I thought I recognized it. Although since the only Carax film I’ve seen is Holy Motors (which premiered only months before Frances Ha), I don’t know why I assumed I could have spotted it.
I think you probably heard about it as critics and fans talked about Baumbach’s tribute to Carax though Mauvais Sang is probably Carax’s most accessible film, behind The Lovers on the Bridge.
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