Relatively normal-seeming indie film – it took me a while to recalibrate my expectations to the lower budget, the subdued Denis Lavant, these two artists still so young and unaware of the great works they’d eventually achieve. It’s new-wavey, and in love with love, and just wonderful, so it’s my problem that I can’t help but compare it to the later films.

Mireille Perrier (later the sorta-narrator of Chocolat) is “Girl” – both of them are going through breakups when they meet and hang out at a party after Alex has a long night walking dazed through the city. He goes off on his own again but comes back, too late to save her from bathtub scissor suicide.


Mr. X (2014, Tessa Louise-Salome)

A talking-heads interview doc about the films of Leos Carax, with clips. I watched this after catching up with Boy Meets Girl, the last of his major features I hadn’t seen before, and revisiting clips of his other films was pleasure enough, but this doc was remarkably good on its own, projecting interviews visually over film footage and showing outtakes and on-set footage and rehearsals and auditions.

Richard Brody: “[The] enduring enemy in his films is ordinariness, routine, mediocrity. And just as the men in his films are willing to go to dangerous extremes to poeticize their life, so the kinds of women his male characters are attracted to are also poetically extravagant.”

Berenice (1954, Eric Rohmer)

An Edgar Allen Poe story about a talky, sickly shut-in who stares at everyday objects all day is an odd choice for your first film. The guy (Rohmer himself!) lives with an epileptic cousin, becomes monomaniacally obsessed with her teeth, and eventually they get engaged since neither can deal with the outside world. But she dies one night, and he takes this very melodramatically, then awakens from a fugue days later having dug up the grave and stolen the teeth. It’s all narration and sound effects, shot by Jacques Rivette, still a couple years before his debut short.

Khan Khanne (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)

“This is not a film anymore, although it is my best.” What Godard sent to this year’s Cannes instead of appearing in person. Godard is his usual latter-day self, acting the scatterbrained professor, possibly quoting Hannah Arendt and/or referencing Chris Marker, cutting in excerpts from Alphaville and King Lear, using camera shots and sound editing that make it seem like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, ultimately making little sense to me, but with a weirdo bravado.

Adieu a TNS (1998, Jean-Luc Godard)

Swaying, smoking, Godard recites a singsongy poem over gentle accordion in three parts, the framing tighter each time. I’ve read that this was “a bitter and mournful farewell to the National Theater of Strasbourg.”

The Accordion (2010, Jafar Panahi)

Two brothers play music for spare change, not realizing they’re outside a mosque. A guy threatens to report them to the police, takes their accordion and runs. But it turns out he’s just a poor bastard hoping to earn money with the instrument, so the kids join him instead of killing him with a rock, which had been the other option.

The Nest (2014, David Cronenberg)

Single-take nine-minute shot from first-person perspective of surgeon (Cronenberg) interviewing patient (Evelyne Brochu, Tom’s ally/coworker in Tom at the Farm) who claims she has a wasps nest inside her left breast. Doubles as a commissioned short for some exhibition and a trailer for his first novel, Consumed, out this fall.

Gradiva (2014, Leos Carax)

Another gallery commission featuring a naked girl. This time the girl has gone to buy cigarettes, returns and has a short conversation with Rodin’s The Thinker.

The Legend of Hallowdega (2010, Terry Gilliam)

Unfunny fake investigation into haunted goings-on at the Talladega racetrack from a Daily Show writer. Just terrible. I won’t give away the twist comedic ending because I’m too embarrassed. Ends with a nice Wolf Parade song, at least.

On demande une brute (1934, Charles Barrois)

Early Jacques Tati, who wrote and starred as a hapless actor who accidentally signs up to be a wrestler. Despite all the time spent on audition scenes and the wrestling match, the only good bit is when he tries to keep his shrew wife from absentmindedly eating a pet fish at the dinner table.

Gravesend (2007, Steve McQueen)

Beautiful shots that seem to go on longer than they should, check, yep it’s the guy who made Hunger. One of those art installation pieces that is very cool to read about and less fun to watch. I wanted to like it, and almost did…

From the official description:

Gravesend uses a documentary approach to focus on the mining of coltan, employed in the manufacture of cell phones, laptops and other high-tech apparatus. The film cuts between two sites: a technological, highly automated industrial plant in the West where the precious metal is processed for the final production of microelectronic parts, and the central Congo, where miners use simple shovels or their bare hands to extract, wash and collect the ore on leaves. .. coltan, traded at an extremely high price, represents one of the key financial factors in the armed conflict of the militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where decades of civil war have cost several million human lives.

Away From It All (1979, John Cleese & Clare Taylor)

Fake travelogue disguised to look and sound like a real one (unless you recognize John Cleese’s voice), very gradually straying from the company line, slipping in notes of humor and aggression. Stock footage takes us from Rome to Venice to Ireland to Bulgaria to Vienna to New York, back to Venice to Acapulco, to a rapid montage of vacation spots as the narrator begins ranting about existential terror. Accompanied Life of Brian in British theaters.

Pure cinema! Young, wired Denis Lavant flees girlfriend Julie Delpy to help Hans and Marc (Michel Piccoli) on a heist in place of Lavant’s murdered father, and falls for Piccoli’s girl Juliette Binoche. Camera races Lavant down the street. Amazing skydiving scene (the editing, the parachute’s-eye top-down shot, the sheer audacity). It’s a spare story, and Lavant dies at the end, mourned by both girls. Delpy and Binoche had both previously appeared in Godard films, were later the stars of White and Blue, respectively.

The ultimate movie-movie, starring Denis Lavant 11 times.

Prologue in a movie theater where he is locked in a room with a secret-panel door to which his metal finger is the key.

“Oscar” leaves a giant house as a banker, gets into limo driven by the great Edith Scob (looking much more lively than she did in Summer Hours – I know it was acting and makeup, but I was concerned), is told he has nine appointments today and starts getting into makeup.

1. He plays a hunched homeless woman begging for change, seeing mostly pavement and shoes.

2. Motion-capture room inside a factory – he is covered in tracking markers like the kind Andy Serkis is always wearing. First he enacts an acrobatic fight scene, then runs on a treadmill firing a machine gun, then is joined by a red-rubber-suited woman for a mutant sex scene.

3. “Merde,” he mutters as he glances at the dossier. And so he is Merde, striding through the cemetery eating flowers until he comes across a photo shoot. He bites a camera assistant’s fingers off then abducts model Eva Mendes (of Bad Lieutenant 2), takes her to the sewer, reconfigures her clothes and lays in her lap naked. Best joke of the movie: the headstones all advertise the deceased’s websites.

4. Beleaguered father picks up daughter Angele from a party where she was too shy to dance and mingle. He takes it badly because she lied and said she had a great time.

5. Musical intermission with accordions, time to reflect on the movie. At some point between scenes Michel Piccoli visits the limo to discuss Oscar’s work. Cameras are mentioned – the fact that they used to be these big things but are now tiny and hidden everywhere. So Oscar is a sort of character film-actor of the future. The first two parts he played couldn’t be more different (old and feeble vs. acrobatic, grim realism vs. stark techno-future), so we’re seeing a range of Oscar’s performance types before the second half gets more personal.

6. A bald guy with facial scars knifes another guy to death in a warehouse, makes that guy up to look like himself, then gets knifed by the dying man, ending in a hilarious visual joke, two Oscars dying side-by-side on the ground. As he staggers back to the limo, helped by Edith, we wonder – which one was Oscar, and were either of the stabbings real?

7. He’s a dying man in bed, having a final conversation with sad niece Lea. Further ruptures in the structure: when the old man is “rambling incoherently” he recites lines from previous episodes, and after he “dies” we watch him get back up and leave, chatting briefly with the actress playing his niece on the way out.

7.5?: He quickly makes Edith stop the limo, throws on a red barbed-wire stocking cap and shoots himself-as-the-banker dining along the sidewalk, then gets shot to death. Edith runs over, apologizes to everyone saying it’s a mistaken identity and collects him (stocking-cap, not banker).

8?: During a limo-driver right-of-way argument he wanders off, seeing a girl he knows (Kylie Minogue). They’re in the same line of work and had major history together – she sings a song to fill us in. He seems to be himself (Oscar) here, and she’s preparing for a role where she’s suicidal, waiting for another man. On his way back to the limo, Oscar runs screaming over her dead body, having performed her scene and jumped to the pavement. If she’s as “dead” as he becomes in his scenes then she’ll be fine in a few seconds – and if this wasn’t a performance but the “real” Oscar then why can’t he see her anymore, and why the extreme reaction to her death?

9. Anyway, Oscar ends up at a house full of chimps, whom he kisses goodnight. Edith parks the limo, puts on her Eyes Without a Face mask and walks off. Then the limos converse, tail lights flashing as they speak.

Need to watch this again – not because I may have missed a scene or listed them out of order, but because the movie (and Lavant) is completely amazing [edit: watched again; Katy didn’t like it]. From skimming the critics’ reports I was prepared for something extremely crazy and nonsensical, but this made plenty of sense, and is a completely unique piece of meta-cinema. Caroline Champetier, cinematographer of this and Merde, also shot Of Gods and Men, Rivette’s Gang of Four and Class Relations.

D. Lim: “… as close as Carax has come to an artistic manifesto: a film about life as cinema and cinema as life.”

Not at all surprised when the end credits told me it’s based on a novel. The novel was Herman Melville’s follow-up to Moby Dick, which according to wikipedia was “a critical and financial disaster… universally condemned for both its morals and its style.” The movie plays like a piece of tragic literature without feeling uncomfortable in its present-day setting. I mean that as a compliment, but it also means the plot, as strange as it initially seems, has a feeling of inevitability. It opens on a rich couple, happy, alive and in love, so I know things won’t end well. Maybe it would be interesting to someday make a movie that opens on a loving couple who manage to stay that way.

Anonymously bestselling author Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu, star of Don’t Touch The Axe) is engaged to marry Lucie, but already a weird incestual vibe is creeping in when he calls his mom “sister” and gets all clingy around her. His best friend Thibault returns from travels, congratulates Pierre on his engagement to their mutual childhood friend Lucie, seems sincere about it. But Pierre is distracted by a stalker, and when he finally catches her, she claims to be his long-lost sister Isabelle, hidden away and raised in Bosnia. So Pierre visits some good places to die: the highway at night, a massive unstable rock, a waterfall, then tells his fiancee and mother that he’s moving to Paris by himself.

Pierre and mother:

Pierre tells Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva, sinister stalker in The Intruder): “for the world, you’ll be my wife,” even though nobody in Paris knows who he is so it shouldn’t matter. They immediately run into trouble on both sides of the law, Thibault throws him out, and newly-disillusioned Pierre is having trouble with his follow-up novel. His agent: “The need to spit the world’s sinister truth in its face is as old as the world itself.” Another woman and a little girl travel with them – I was never sure who they were, exactly, but the girl dies after being smacked in the head by a passer-by, and the couple moves again.

Now they’re in a warehouse run by a drums-and-feedback noise conductor and his all-black-clothed orchestra – just the kind of thing people assume goes on in Paris – and now their public/private roles seem reversed, as they sleep together when nobody is looking, but stay in separate beds. Back in the country, Pierre’s distraught mom (Catherine Deneuve, the same year she did Ruiz’s Time Regained) gets on his motorcycle and dies on the highway at night – so it beats the massive rock and the waterfall as the movie’s foreshadowed death monument. Lucie tracks Pierre down and stays with them (“we’ll say you’re my cousin”).

More troubles: Isabelle jumps off the winter ferry trying to die, Pierre publicly identifies himself as the author of the bestselling novel but is called an impostor, nobody wants his new book (“a raving morass that reeks of plagiarism”), Thibault is harassing them, and Pierre is getting shit from his conductor/landlord, whose musicans apparently also double as his private militia. So Pierre grabs some guns, goes into town and blows Thibault’s head off, is packed into the police van as his women both run after him, then Isabelle walks in front of a speeding ambulance.

It struck me as ironic that Pierre is trying to write a great, tortured novel, seeking the ultimate truths, while all his relationships are full of lies. Watched this because I enjoyed the unhinged awesomeness of Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge and his Merde short, and I’m hearing that his new one is bananas. But this was apparently the grimly serious piece between features of transcendent weirdness, despite a blood-soaked dream-sequence or two. I was looking forward to the Dirty Three score, but it’s actually by Scott Walker – what was I thinking of?

Lucie, in happier times:

Senses of Cinema:

If compared to Jean-Luc Godard and later Philippe Garrel in his first works, in Pola X we find a Carax closer to Jacques Rivette – who, not in vain, has declared that for him this is the most beautiful French film of the ’90s. The Rivettian airs can be found, for example, in the importance of the ideas of conspiracy, secrecy and masks; in the shots of large interior spaces like factory buildings and chateaus; and, above all, in the treatment of time: so many meters of film are used to follow the characters’ journeys, living the process with them – at the beginning of the film we follow Pierre all the way from the chateau where he lives to Lucie’s home, including the ferry ride; similarly, at the end of the film Carax spends a lot of time following Pierre’s journey to Thibault.

Pol Pot’s Birthday (2004, Talmage Cooley)
In 1985, the scrappy dictator’s men throw him a super-weak budget surprise birthday party, with grey cake and music on an old tape player. Awkward conversation ensues… P-P gets peed on by a dog and “Walking On Sunshine” plays over the credits. Kim Rew got paid?
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Meet King Joe (1949, John Sutherland)
More generic propaganda with no direct sense of purpose. Joe is “the king of the workers of the world” because here in America, competition and investment in infrastructure make our jobs easier with more disposable income than anywhere else. Take that, dirt-poor chinaman! Statistics to be proud of: “Americans own practically all the refrigerators in existence. Bathtubs? We’ve got 92% of them.”
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Hymn to Merde (2009, Leos Carax)
I agree that Merde/Lavant is wonderful to watch, but Carax doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. Protracted death-sentence courtroom drama wasn’t it, nor is a lo-res music video of him singing a Kills song translated into his own head-slapping language.
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.tibbaR (2004, Leo Wentink)
Eerie music and nervous sound effects accompany time-remapped footage of lab rabbit breeding. I never know why anything is happening in short films anymore.
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Go! Go! Go! (1964, Marie Menken)
So damn jittery it gave me an eye-ache, exactly what I was getting away from the computer in order to avoid. All nervous time-lapse footage shot around the city. Some real nice high-angle shots of construction sites and traffic patterns, superimpositions on a wedding, lots of boats and bridges. Color/picture looked perfect on my tube TV.
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The Spook Speaks (1940, Jules White)
Not-at-all-good short full of corny sound effects and sub-stooges gags, but it’s better than the others I’ve watched on these DVDs since it has a roller-skating penguin. Buster’s costar Elsie Ames (she was in most of these shorts, then showed up 30 years later in Minnie & Moskowitz for some reason) is terrible, but then, Buster is terrible too. Thanks Sony for slapping warnings and disclaimers and legal shit before every short on the disc. They must’ve known it wouldn’t get tiresome because we’d only watch one before quitting.
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Who Am I? (1989, Faith Hubley)
Things morph into other things, illustrating the five (or six or seven) senses. Short!
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Blake Ball (1988, Emily Hubley)
Didn’t love the narration in this one. The woman who says “some are born to sweet delight/some are born to endless night” (without the preceding lines) has got nothing on Nobody. I guess all the lines are the words of William Blake, but they’re not making much of an impact, and I never figured out Blake’s connection to all the baseball stuff. There’s more five senses stuff anyway. A bit too laboriously new-agey, but some great moments (like below).
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O Dreamland (1953, Lindsay Anderson)
Boy did I ever botch the Free Cinema box set, buying it then deciding I didn’t want to watch it after all and letting it sit on the shelf for years. Finally checked this out and I kinda really like it. Could do without the evil laughing clown all over the soundtrack. Kind of like Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice which, given If….‘s resonance with Zero For Conduct, proves Anderson saw a Vigo retrospective at some point.

Three half-hour Tokyo-set films by three famous non-Japanese filmmakers. I didn’t read the reviews very closely but I gather that some viewers thought the Michel Gondry segment about a struggling couple moving into the city and the Bong Joon-ho segment about socially-dysfunctional residents of an earthquake-prone Tokyo were pretty good and the Leos Carax segment about a sewer-dwelling monster was awful, and some viewers agreed that the Gondry and Bong were pretty good but thought the Carax was brilliant. A fan of Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge, I assumed I’d fall into the latter group, but I wound up finding the whole experience somewhat unsatisfying. By the time I finished watching six previews and an overlong ad for the film festival through an allergy-induced headache I was ready to go home already. Then the movies themselves, a far cry from Paris, je t’aime, seemed awfully down on their host city, and the whole thing was kind of a bummer (and a digital-video-looking bummer at that).

Gondry’s bit featured a wannabe-filmmaker come to the city with his first film, which turns out to be terrible, and his girlfriend (Ayako Fujitani of the Gamera trilogy) who feels like nobody notices her. There’s fanciful talk of dreams and ghosts, and in the end she turns into a piece of furniture, a wooden chair. She’s picked up by a musician, and finally finds happiness – to be of use.

After this portrait of selfish men in an inhospitable city, Carax dives right in with a sewer-dwelling monster (Denis Lavant, of Lovers on the Bridge and Chaplin in Mister Lonely) named Merde walking the street shoving and groping people and being a general nuisance. It’s all jolly and hilarious until he finds a cache of grenades in an underground cave, and on his next rampage he blows up a bunch of people and is arrested for murder. Now we get an achingly prolonged trial where the monster is represented by a lookalike (but more posh) lawyer (Jean-François Balmer of films by Ruiz, Chabrol, Akerman), who speaks our guy’s mythic language of grunts, whines and head-slaps. It’s all over-silly and over-serious at the same time, and I don’t know what to think when the unrepentant Lavant is hung at the end.

Bong tries to restore some whimsy to the proceedings with Shaking Tokyo. His story of a shut-in (Teruyuki Kagawa, in Serpent’s Path a decade ago, starring in the new Tokyo Sonata) is at least the most Japanese of the three stories, the reclusive “hikikomori” being a recent phenomenon of that country – as far as I’m concerned, the other two movies could be set in any major city. Due to an earthquake, our guy accidentally makes eye contact with another person for the first time in a decade, and that person is substitute pizza-delivery girl Yû Aoi, who has button-like tattoos representing different emotions – when one is pushed it determines how she feels. The next day, she decides to shut herself away in her room, along with seemingly everyone else in the city, while our guy steels himself and goes outside to search for her, leading to a cutey happy ending when he presses her LOVE button. The “earthquake changes everything” conceit reminded me of Chan-Wook Park’s short Judgement, and the empty city reminded me of Pulse.

Bong: “I had an image of the people of Tokyo as oddly repressed, defensively lonely… I think I had a desire to wake them up, shake up and liberate such people. That’s where the title, Shaking Tokyo came from and how the motif of the earthquake also came about.”

I guess I’m liking the three movies better now that I’m thinking about them, but at the time they didn’t seem to be working together and I wasn’t sure what the movie’s point was. I’m sure it’ll be like Eros or Three Extremes, where the omnibus concept disappears in time and I start to think of ’em as decent individual shorts.

I am pleased to say that the movie never quite dives into gritty, depressing realism. It seems like it will… I mean, the second scene is set in a horrible homeless shelter with our hero lying half dead on the floor, his leg smashed after a car ran over it, being dragged unconscious into the showers by the shelter’s other miserable-looking occupants. But forty minutes later he is motoring down the Seine towing Juliette Binoche on waterskiis, surrounded by fireworks in what must’ve been one of the most exuberant film sequences of the decade. When he’s sick of it, he throws away his crutch and in the next scene his cast is gone too. The movie reminds us of real-world problems but its heroes are above them… homeless, sick, injured, lonely, hungry, fighting with each other, but never so bad that the next scene can’t fix everything.

Guy with the busted leg is Alex, resourceful homeless guy who lives on the under-construction bridge with his scary mentor Hans (who dispenses whatever drug Alex needs to sleep at night). Binoche is heartbroken Michelle who was a painter before she started going blind and ran away from her treatment. After they fall in love, Alex rebels when he hears that a search is on to find and cure Michelle, preferring her to be dependent on his care. But she finds out and gets the cure, while he inadvertently lights a guy on fire and goes to jail for a couple years. Very romantic-comedy-like, they make a date to meet on Christmas on the repaired bridge and end up together. Sounds dreadfully obvious, and it does get a bit indie-film-cutesy, but the love story and the ballsy storytelling pulled me right in… loved the movie.

Binoche was nominated for a best actress Cesar, but running against Emmanuelle Beart for La Belle noiseuse and Irene Jacob for Double Life of Veronique, the “brave young actress in awesome art film” vote was split, and the award went to elder Jeanne Moreau for a comedy I’ve never heard of. But up against a completely different group of actresses, Binoche took the European Film Award that year. Denis Lavant, also star of Carax’s Bad Blood and Denis’s Beau travail, unsurprisingly (because he’s funny-lookin’) later appeared in A Very Long Engagement. Hans was Klaus-Michael Grüber, previously a director for television, who has appeared in nothing else.

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Learned some stuff on other sites. Everyone wants to talk about the movie’s huge spiraling budget as Carax, unable to use the bridge itself, built a new bridge (and the surrounding buildings!) over a lake for a movie set. And everyone wants to talk about the movie being a flop upon release in theaters. And Americans want to gripe about the nine-year-delayed release to theaters here. And everyone makes a point of mentioning that Leos Carax is a made-up name, but I only saw one mention that the character Alex is a stand-in for the director (real name Alex), who was dating Juliette Binoche while this was in production. Also found plenty of comparisons to other films:

Titanic – for the ending (“king of the world” bit on the barge), fact that it’s a super-expensive movie but plot is a simple two-person love story.

One From The Heart – for the romantic tone, but mostly for the huge, awesomely expensive artificial set created for the movie, and the subsequent damage to the director’s career after the movie was not well-received.

City Lights – blind girl, in love with a homeless man, regains her sight at the end. Clearly an influence on the story.

L’Atalante – ahh, there’s the one Carax probably had in mind. Protagonists are poor but resourceful, in love but in a rocky relationship, joined by a moody father-figure old man, end up together on a barge. Perfect.