Culture

Bad blood, Bowie, Halley’s comet

Anna (Binoche), top, Marc (Piccoli) and Alex (Lavant), center, and Elise (Delpy), bottom. Photos courtesy of Metropolis Cinema

BEIRUT: An odd thing happens part-way through Leos Carax’s “Mauvais sang” (Bad Blood). A young card hustler named Alex (Denis Lavant) steps into the night as the radio within starts to play the David Bowie tune “Modern Love.”

Alex’s been wrestling with how much he wants Anna (Juliette Binoche), the pretty girl who’s sitting inside. She happens to be the mistress of the much older Marc (Michel Piccoli) – a criminal colleague of his (recently murdered, maybe merely suicidal) father, who’s recruited Alex to stand in for his old man during his next heist.

It’s a conflicted moment the Bowie tune accompanies, and Alex responds by pitching himself down the street, carrying the sax-driven refrain with him in an extravagant tracking shot of athleticism – airborne summersaults, shadow-boxing, etc. – and self-harm (he likes to punch himself in the guts sometimes).

The “odd thing” about this moment isn’t DP Jean Yves Escoffier’s tracking shot, which critics prize as a highlight of Carax’s film and ’80s cinema generally. The oddness is more subjective.

If, like Lavant and Binoche, you were in your 20s when Carax’s film was released, you’d know “Modern Love” didn’t emerge from Bowie’s years of cool alter-egos – Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and all that – but from the record that proclaimed he’d resigned himself to making pop music that was “fun.”

Witnessing this sequence for the first time in 2017 is startling. It’s quite unlike watching an older classic, “La Dolce Vita,” say, or a hip recent film like “Adaptation.”

Watching Lavant scrambling to keep himself within Escoffier’s frame, it may remind you of that you too were young, but conscious, when Carax shot this cinematic experiment. It might occur to you how the confluence of elements that make a film allows meaning to accrue over time, sometimes at an oddly personal level.

The film tells a story set during the planet’s close encounter with Halley’s Comet, which makes Paris eerily hot until it somehow prompts snowfall. These uncommon days are also marked by the spread of a disease that afflicts those who indulge in recreational sex without love – said to be among cinema’s early references to the AIDS epidemic.

Marc and his crew (including Alex’s deceased pop) are in debt to a rival mob led by a ruthlessly francophone American woman. The only way to make the money he needs to pay her back is to steal the deadly STD culture a pharmaceutical company has isolated in its Paris facility.

Enter Alex, who decides to take advantage of his newly orphaned status to abandon his old life – including his gal Lise (a teenage Julie Delpy) and the motorbike he bequeaths to her.

“It takes money,” Alex pouts, “to build a new life.”

Lovers of cinematic realism will quickly tire of “Mauvais sang.” Carax seems less interested in developing his film’s heist premise than in creating set pieces that give Escoffier something to shoot – as when Alex leaps out a plane to save Anna, who’s fainted after Marc bullies her to try skydiving.

Carax is the filmmaker who’s taken up the formal and intellectual legacy of France’s New Wave, it’s said, and that of Jean-Luc Godard in particular. His second feature, “Mauvais sang” was slated upon its release for emulating the language of the music video more than that of independent cinema.

Whether you agree with this assessment or not, Carax’s work provides an engaging bridge between classic Nouvelle Vague and the dizzying diffusion that marks contemporary moving images – from glossy high-definition video employed in music video, electronic art and art-house cinema, to muddier film and film-emulating cinema and art work.

“Mauvais sang” was projected at Metropolis-Sofil Monday evening in gloriously tattered 35mm film. It was the opening work of “Rétrospective Michel Piccoli,” the art cinema’s latest film cycle to focus on the work of a golden age film star, rather than a director.

Critics and other snobs sometimes look down their noses at actor-centered film programs, as they’re said to pander to popular tastes – the Pavlovian public being more likely to recognize the pretty face before the camera than the less photogenic mind behind it.

This view is the creation of film critics who – like Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in “The Producers” – dismiss actors as idiots. Individual critics may be predisposed to cinematography or writing but the institution of film criticism has erected the cult of the director.

The cult persists despite the fact that blue-clip film directors are swept up in the entertainment press dragnet just as often A-list actors and that – since the director’s role is less obvious to gormless audiences and journalists alike, compared to that of the DP, say – he (occasionally “she”) is routinely given credit that frequently ought to go to the production designer or editor.

So it can be useful when a programmer designs a film retrospective that hinges on a single actor rather than a director.

Metropolis’ present cycle suggests the true utility of actor-centered programing. Popular actors like Piccoli tend to work with strong directors, allowing bookish filmgoers an opportunity to see if their performances are noticeably different from one director to the next – or if all actors are variations on a theme of John Cusack.

This cycle promises works by such giants as Godard, Bu?uel, Girerd, three titles by Claude Sautet and Maroun Bagdadi’s 1987 feature “L’Homme voile.”

Bon appetit.

“Rétrospective Michel Piccoli” runs through Nov. 26 at Metropolis-Sofil. For details, see http://www.metropoliscinema.net

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 22, 2017, on page 16.

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