Nationality: French. Born: Alexandre Oscar Dupont in Suresnes, France, 22 November 1960. Education: Left school and moved to Paris at age sixteen; watched films at the Cinématheque and audited a university film course. Career: Contributed several reviews to Cahiers du Cinéma; attempted but did not complete a short film, 1978; first feature, Boy Meets Girl, 1984; took a long hiatus from filmmaking after the expensive failure of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and his breakup with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Awards: Prix
Delluc for Boy Meets Girl, 1984; Alfred Bauer Prize (Berlin) for Mauvais Sang, 1987.
Films as Director:
La Fille revée (short, unfinished + sc)
Strangulation Blues (short + sc)
Boy Meets Girl (+ sc)
Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood/The Night Is Young) (+ sc)
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge) (+ sc)
Sans Titre (short)
Pola X (+ sc)
King Lear (Godard) (ro)
Les Ministères de L'Art (Garrel) (ro)
A Casa (The House) (Bartas) (ro)
By CARAX: articles—
"Léos Carax," interview with David Thompson, Sight and Sound (London), September 1992.
On CARAX: articles—
Forbes, Jill, "Omegaville," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1987.
Thompson, David, "Léos Carax," in Sight and Sound (London), September 1992.
Horton, Robert, "New Bridges,"in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1992.
Vincendeau, Ginette, "Juliette Binoche: From Gamine to Femme Fatale," in Sight and Sound (London), September 1993.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "The Problem with Poetry: Léos Carax," in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1994.
Lopate, Phillip, "Festivals: New York," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1999.
* * *
His name is entirely made up—for nothing as prosaic as "Alexandre Dupont," the birth name of Léos Carax, could possibly contain the delirium of his sensibility. Léos Carax is, however, an anagram that includes his original name, Alex, mixed together with Oscar. This may be the only Oscar Carax ever wins, since his deeply personal style is probably too purely poetic, too elliptical for Academy Award consideration. But the merging of his real identity with the symbol of movie illusion is a clue to appreciating this singular director, arguably the most talented French filmmaker of his generation.
Carax was born in 1960, to a French father and American mother, and began writing sporadic contributions to Cahiers du Cinéma while a teenager. He also worked on short films, including Strangulation Blues (1980), before directing his first feature, Boy Meets Girl, in 1984. A spare, black-and-white picture, Boy Meets Girl announced the arrival of a distinct, if not quite developed, talent. In this monochrome ode to Paris at night, a drifter (Denis Lavant) keeps track of his own wanderings, while an actress (Mireille Perrier) escapes to the boulevards to avoid a lover. The title, so suggestive of the most conventional of all plot lines, is ironic in a variety of ways, not least because the boy doesn't meet the girl for a very long time. On its own terms an evocative paean to Paris, Boy Meets Girl is also an attempt to re-create the French New Wave—in an even more self-conscious light than the New Wave itself.
Boy Meets Girl brought its young director some status in Europe, even if he was irrelevantly lumped together with two young compatriots, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson. It also established Carax's working relationship with three important partners: producer Alain Dahan, who died after the completion of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf; cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, who would shoot the director's subsequent two features; and Denis Lavant. A strange leading man by any measure, Lavant's troll-like face, gymnast's physicality, and near-autistic acting style embodied the Carax alter ego; he plays characters named Alex in the loose trilogy that begins with Boy Meets Girl. Capable of self-contained watchfulness and sudden eruptions of violence, Lavant's presence is obviously key to Carax's Baudelairean conception of a movie hero.
Their next film was Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood/The Night Is Young), in 1987. Although its plot about a mysterious blood-borne virus touches on the specter of AIDS, Mauvais Sang is really another excursion into romantic (and movie) love. Carax's real-life companion at the time, future Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche, is also the star of the film, deliberately molded by her director-lover to resemble Jean-Luc Godard's wife-muse-star of the 1960s, Anna Karina.
Although susceptible, like all of Carax's films, to a certain murkiness, Mauvais Sang bursts with sheer filmmaking ecstasy. A sequence of Denis Lavant running/dancing/exploding down city streets, as the camera tracks breathlessly alongside him and David Bowie sings "Modern Love" on the soundtrack, is pure exhilaration, and evidence of Carax's talent for the set-piece.
At this time, Carax acted in a couple of films, including Godard's bizarre doodle on King Lear (1987). He also prepared his greatest film and greatest folly, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge, 1990), again starring Lavant and Binoche. Most of the film is set on the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont-Neuf, closed for restoration during the French Revolution bicentennial. A scruffy street performer (Lavant) lives on the bridge, with an older mentor. They are soon joined by an artist (Binoche) who is going blind—a postmodern echo of Chaplin's City Lights, one of the film's varied inspirations.
Though Carax may allude to his cinematic forbears—L'Atalante being one touchstone—Les Amants is, gloriously and astonishingly, unlike any other film. It begins with a grueling sequence, apparently shot in a police drunk tank with real street people, that promises a documentary-like approach. But the film quickly enters the realm of gutter-level fable, including a Bastille Day sequence that depicts the lovers gamboling across the Pont-Neuf as fireworks streak across the bridge and music blares from a dozen different sources—later followed by an eye-popping water-skiing stunt down the Seine. The actors themselves appear to be in danger at various moments in the movie.
Les Amants was plagued by serious production problems, with stop-and-start shooting from summer 1988 to spring 1990. An injury to Denis Lavant, cost overruns, and the expensive re-creation of the Pont-Neuf in southern France all contributed to the lengthy process. It received a chilly box-office reception in France, and for years failed to secure an American distributor (finally finding an arthouse release in 1999, after its existence had become semi-legendary). Carax, according to his own cryptic description, went "to hell" during the 1990s, returning with Pola X in time for the Cannes Festival of 1999.
Pola X is a contemporary adaptation of Melville's Pierre, or The Ambiguities (the title is whimsical shorthand: Pola for the French title of the novel, Pierre, ou les ambiguities, X for the tenth draft of Carax's script). The saga of a privileged young writer (Guillaume Depardieu) who leaves his golden existence for the squalor of bohemia (and the bed of his long-lost sister), Pola X pleased few critics, even as it raised eyebrows for its explicit sex scene; in Film Comment, Phillip Lopate declared that the film "never comes alive, never is believable for a second." Some of the criticism missed the picture's deadpan humor—like the original novel, it is partly a parody of a certain kind of melodrama—but Carax did seem to be in a holding pattern of sorts. However, his ability to create rich and dizzy images, and to explore the far reaches of l'amour fou, remains excitingly intact.