The Life and Times of Leos Carax: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Mauvais Sang, Pola X, Holy Motors

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, Dance, Fantasy, France by CulturalMining.com on August 22, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking Boymeetsgirl_photofest_01_mediumat high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Leos Carax is a French Director. He’s one of those filmmakers that you may not have heard of, but who, once you see his movies, you’ll be hooked. He’s impossible to categorize, partly because he’s not like any other director, and partly because he’s not even like himself – he’s constantly changing his style and techniques. They shift from absurdist, comic-book-like films, to classic film noir gangster movies, to hyper-realistic semi-documentaries, and then back again. The one constant, in almost all his films, is the actor Denis Lavant.

Loversonthebridge_frl_03_mediumLes Amants du Pont-Neuf

Dir: Leos Carax

The first Leos Carax film I saw was Les Amant du Pont Neuf – Lovers on the Bridge. It’s a simple, — but not simplistic – story of an artist who is going blind (Juliette Binoche) who meets Alex, a street busker (Denis Lavant). They fall in love, sort of, and meet on an ancient Paris bridge that’s under repairs.  With the help of an eccentric, white-bearded hobo named Hans, the two of them try to stay together… but can they?

When I first saw this movie I thought – who the hell is playing this guy, alex? Denis Lavant is an intense performer who uses fire, acrobatics and bodily contortions and fighting as part of his acting. The movie feels like Carax just run into this busker on the street at random, and decided to film him. (That’s not the case, obviously). Oh yeah, and in this movie he doesn’t really speak. He’s an unbreakable but cartoonish figure, while Binoche is a tragic and passionate heroine.

Critics tend to exaggerate the importance of movies, every poster has some critic saying a movie is the best thing ever. Personally, I think hyperbole is the most overated technique in the world – no the universe… But honestly, if you’re a cinephile, if you love movies, you should be required to see Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. It’s that different, that important.

Mauvaissang_photofest_01_mediumMauvais Sang

… was one of Carax’s earliest films, the second one he made. It’s as complex as Pont Neuf is simple. This is about two young lovers, Lise and Alex (played by a teenaged Julie Delpy and Denis Lavant), happy and carefree in the fields of Paris. He is known as a trickster – he picks up extra income doing street scams like three card monte in dark allies. But Alex is pulled away from this life by a pair of aging gangsters.

They know him from working with his late father, and they need Alex – known for his nimble fingers – to help pull off a complicated theft. You see, they owe money to an older American woman, also a gangster; if they pull off the heist, she’ll will cancel their debt. If not… they’re dead meat.

What’s the heist? They have to break into a lab and steal a deadly sexually transmitted virus called STBO, that could kill millions, and whose vaccine would be worth a fortune. (This movie was made in 1986, during the height of the HIV plague).

Alex agrees. He leaves his motorcycle with Lise and flees the city – only to be smitten by the gorgeous Anna (Juliette Binoche) , the mistress of one of the white-haired gangsters. But she rejects him, saying she’s attracted to much older men, bigger men, not to him.

And Lise, meanwhile, won’t let Alex leave her.

Mauvais Sang is a highly-stylized film, filled with peeping toms, bizarre scenes of jumping out of airplanes, staring up at windows, and chase scenes down those long French roads lined with plane trees.

Sometimes it feels like he’s mocking the audience, that it’s all just a big parody; and then it’ll shift into an amazingly passionate and playful scene between Binoche and Lavant and you’re totally caught up in it.

The women in this movie are always smartly dressed and coiffed, while the men, even the older gangsters, seem to walk around semi-clothed, with shirtless chase scenes and shootouts.

In this film, Lavant is still a boy, given to extended shots of him racing down a street, shifting from modern dance to shadow boxing to spontaneous handsprings. Binoche is a pixie with a black, page-boy haircut with flawless, porcelain skin and red lips. The two of them setting up scenes of unrequited love you can follow in Les Amant du Pont- Neuf. Wow – what a movie.

Pola X

…was made in 1999, and it feels different from his other movies. It’s about Pierre (Guillaume Pola X (1999 France)  Directed by Leos Carax Shown: Guillaume DepardieuDepardieu), a young novelist from a very rich family. He wears only white linen and hops in and out of bed with his equally blonde fiancée. His publisher loves his innocence and immaturity. But Pierre  wants to experience reallife. Then his controlling mother (Catherine Deneuve) discovers a secret – some old papers that his late father (a French diplomat who served in Eastern Europe) left behind.

Meanwhile, Pierre discovers that a scruffy, dark-haired street woman is following him – who is she? Listen to her story: (clip)

When he discovers that she may be his blood sister, he throws away his best friend, his fiancé, his family and wealth and plunges into her life of danger and poverty… and possibly, love.

Were this by any other director, I’d say, wow, cool, passionate drama – but it feels like something’s missing. While it has a lot of Carax’s touches – it feels like his most main-stream or conventional film. What’s missing is Denis Lavant. Lavant is a very unusual-looking movie star – he has a compact muscular body, a flattened nose, gap-teeth, scarred skin. He can also do just about anything – magic, acrobatics, dance… anything. In comparison, the late Depardieu (he tragically died from an infection) while compelling, just doesn’t seem to match the greatness and strangeness of someone like Lavant.

Finally,

holymotors_wildbunch_02_mediumHoly Motors

…which just came out last year.

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older chauffeur named Cecile.

Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that inside the limo he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards. He turns into the man or woman he plays in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, and Kylie Minogue’s lover. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man in the car.

In one especially marvellous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood all over an unflappably blasé supermodel… before carrying her off to an underground hideaway for a bizarre sexual encounter and another shocking transformation. (No spoilers here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? Or is Oscar doing this for you and me (the moviegoers) playing his role in the cosmic scheme of things — the entire movie is his act. Life’s an illusion, but an enjoyable one, and Denis (with Edith Skob as the driver) have never been better.

Modern Love – The Films of Leos Carax, curated by James Quandt,  is being screened in Toronto beginning this weekend, with the director speaking at some of the shows. Go to tiff.net for details. And the funny road comedy I reviewed last week, We’re The Millers, opens today – check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com

European Directors and their Stars. Movies reviewed: Holy Motors, Barbara.

Posted in 1980s, Class, Cold War, Cultural Mining, Disguise, documentary, Drama, France, Germany, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 29, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ugh…winter. Bah, humbug. It’s at times like this, when your wastebasket is overflowing with cold-generated used Kleenex, and the streets with knee-deep snowdrifts, it’s at miserable wintery seasons like this that you have to remind yourself about the good parts of city life. And in Toronto, that’s movies.

There’s always something good ouit there, mainstream or obscure, spurred on by local moviegoers and the 70-odd film festivals, from TIFF on down.

So this week I’m looking at two really interesting European movies by great — but not very well-known — directors. These films are also notable in that both directors use actors that were central to earlier films.

Holy Motors, Denis Lavant, Kylie MinogueHoly Motors

Dir: Leos Carax

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older woman, Cecile, his chauffeur (chauffeuse?)

He looks at his papers, enjoys the rides, talks on a cel phone. Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that he’s more than just an average exec. Inside the limo, he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards, which he dons to become the man he’s supposed to play in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, Kylie Minogue’sHoly Motors Denis Lavant Monsieur Merde erstwhile lover, and many others. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man who plays the roles and communicates with Cecile.

In one especially marvelous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood over a unflappably blasé supermodel before carrying her off to an underground hideaway to complete an even more shocking and grotesque transformation. (No spoiler here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

Holy Motors monsieur merde denis lavant 3So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? I don’t think so.

Oscar’s doing this for you and me (the moviegoers, as a performer in this movie. The entire movie is his act. It’s all an illusion, but an enjoyable one.

Denis Lavant (who played the male lead, a busker, in his Carax’s amazing love story Les Amant du Pont Neuf) is back in full form – just incredible. His foil, Cecile (played by veteran actress Edith Scob) is also great. This is a truly weird and incredible movie that has to be seen to be believed. While there are a few site gags that don’t seem to match the humour of the rest of the rest of the movie, it doesn’t detract from the film. It’s a great movie, like no movie you’ve ever seen before.

Nina Hoss Barbara_02_HFBarbara

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s the 1980s in East Germany, and Barbara, a doctor, gets sent down to the countryside for requesting an exit permit.

(A bit of an explanation: after WWII, Germany was divided, with half of it becoming part of the democratic and capitalist West and half a socialist republic siding with the Soviet Bloc. Berlin – once the capital – was also divided into sectors occupied by the military of the allies — the UK, the US, France and the Soviet Union.

In the early 60s they put up a wall to prevent the East Berliners from entering West Berlin. Berlin became a city divided, like the two Germanys.)

Getting back to the movie… Dr Barbara Woolf (Nina Hoss) is a doctor from East Berlin. She’sJasna Fritzi Bauer Barbara_11_HF a stern, punctual no-nonsense professional who can’t stand her new, second-rate provincial hospital. She is also extremely beautiful, given to black eyeliner, her blond hair tightly pulled back. She is stuck in the countryside because she filed a request to move to the West.

East Germany is riddled with all-powerful intelligence agents constantly spying on everyone. Life is awful, and everyone wants to get out, to flee to the west for freedom. She thinks Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) the friendly doctor she works with is spying on her, and she is frequently visited in her crummy apartment by sinister communist intelligence agents looking for clues in her bodily orifices.

Nina Hoss BARBARA  Regie Christian PetzoldAt the hospital, there are constantly patients being dropped into the hospital after being beaten up by police for trying to escape. It’s a building filled with strange creaks, bangs and thuds, and desperate teenaged runaways looking for help She feels for them, especially young Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) a juvie who is abused at her work detail. Meanwhile, with the help of a gallant, handsome lover from the west, she is planning her getaway to freedom. They also meet for secret trysts in the woods and to pass on information.

Everything’s quite cut and dry, right? East is evil, the west is good.

The thing is, it’s not quite so simple. The spies aren’t big time villains, just low-key locals with their own problems. And she’s beginning to like her co-doctor Andre. The western heroes may just be self-centred douches, not lovers of freedom. And Barbara herself, begins to question her own motives. Is her plot to escape just self serving? And who is more important: herself or her patients?

All of the actors, especially Hoss, are great, and fascinating to watch.

This is another great movie by Petzold, a minimalist, formalistic director from the so-called Berlin school. I’ve seen three of his movies now, including Jerichow (also starring Nina Hoss) a sort-of a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. All of his movies are terrific, and I believe they are all filmed in the former East Germany, along the distinctive windy, northern coastline.

Holy Motors is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Barbara opens there today. Check your local listings. If you haven’t seen the beautiful TIFF Bell Lightbox yet – it’s a movie theatre a museum and a restaurant – now’s a good time to drop by and take a look. Also playing this week at HotDocs are two great documentaries about urban America: the Central Park Five and Detropia.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

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