Home Video Hovel: Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais sang, by Scott Nye
In the most famous scene in Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais sang, Denis Lavant, spurred on by the radio suddenly playing David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” full-on sprints down the street, jumping and dancing and cartwheeling in an explosion of pent-up desire and rage. It’s the kind of moment that transcends its dramatic momentum into pure iconography, easily one of the greatest “musical” scenes in film history, as the camera struggles to keep up with his unpredictable gait, cutting to a close-up that turns his background into expressionist fantasia. He seems to have transcended the physical. Until, quicker than it began, the song simply stops playing, and he’s left to stop dead in his tracks and walk back to the hideout he’s sharing with his gangster boss (Michel Piccoli), and, perhaps more pressingly, the boss’s young girlfriend (Juliette Binoche).
Both Mauvais sang and Carax’s prior film, his 1984 debut Boy Meets Girl, are essentially about the lure of fantasy amidst the trappings of reality. Modern Love, indeed. In that first feature, Denis plays Alex, an aspiring filmmaker recently stranded by his girlfriend, who not only cheated on him, but did so with his best friend. He confesses all this not only to us, but to the friend in question, before we even know the relationship between either of them, and shoves his former accomplice into the river in a half-hearted, and ultimately futile attempt to drown him. Like many young men, reconciliation is not his highest priority when wounded so deeply. The titular event, usually an indication of hope and happiness, doesn’t even take place until halfway through the film, the title a teasing promise as they continually pass one another without knowing the void they’ll attempt to fill together. She (Mireille Perrier), too, has recently been dumped, but hasn’t the air of superiority and cynicism that Alex affects, and her trajectory is less promising than his.
While often quite funny, both films commit hard to an air of tragedy, as though the characters and their world were doomed from the start, long before they were even born. While Boy Meets Girl is essentially plotless, Mauvais sang exists somewhat playfully in the crime genre, with Levant playing a nimble-handed card sharp who gets roped into a heist. The object in question? A serum for a disease plaguing young people, STBO, which infects and brutally harms those who have sex without emotional involvement (the title translates to “Bad Blood”). If that seems like an excessively French conceptual approach to the AIDS crisis, well, so be it, but, as with Boy Meets Girl, the drive of the film is more imaginative than narrative. Both contain more compelling sly details than many filmmakers muster in their entire careers – a man doing a flip over a subway turnstile, a former silent film actor describing the way his colleagues would just speak profanities to an audience that will never hear them, a woman who throws her husband’s artistic life into the river. “Modern Love” following a classical ballad on the radio, perhaps more a sign of the medium before station formatting dominated than a true fanciful departure. And, most impressively, an astounding skydiving sequence in Mauvais sang in which Levant and Binoche actually hang off the side of a plane.
That Carax can imbue the latter sequence with as much of a dreamlike air as his more swooningly romantic is testament to both his relative calm as even a young filmmaker (he was in his mid-twenties during production), and to his daring. The sensation common in dreams, that outlandish circumstances are rendered everyday, would not be so potent were it not for the direct participation of his actors. He then takes this boldness and films it with a certain remove – minimal cutting, not letting the performances get too expressive (even when danger strikes), little influence from non-diegetic sound – that will inform the more violent interactions yet to come, which prioritizes the sensation of violence rather than the actions themselves. It’s a gangster film, through and through, but more in the Godard model than the Melville, let alone someone like Besson, his contemporary.
Long unavailable in the U.S., French distributor Carlotta Films has done saintly work in bringing these films stateside, perhaps egged on by the fairly successful revival that followed the critically ecstatic reception of Holy Motors in 2012.. Each boasting new 2k restorations, the Blu-ray releases of Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais sang (sold separately, packaged complementarily) look very, very good. The black-and-white photography of Boy Meets Girl is reminiscent of the similar work – both tonally and aesthetically – that Jim Jarmusch would be doing a few years later, and Carax’s high-contrast, heavy-grain look is beautifully preserved here, crisp and sharp but unafraid of the texture of celluloid. Mauvais sang fares even better, in part because its visual concept is a bit more daring, with colors at once subdued and quite powerful. It loses none of its integrity during potentially more problematic scenes (Levant’s “Modern Love” run could be a haven for too much blurring or loss of detail, but looks magnificent). I’ve seen both films on 35mm, and these transfers do spectacular work in transferring that experience to home video, while boasting the sort of bonuses high-definition tends to, such as image stability and damage removal.
Boy Meets Girl comes with a new trailer for the film’s re-release earlier this year, Denis Levant’s charming screen test, and a bit of raw footage from one of the scenes. Mauvais sang goes the extra mile with the documentary Mr. X, which accompanied that film’s re-release in some markets. It’s a feature-length, in-depth look at Carax’s career and cultural impact, featuring everyone from Levant to Binoche to critic Kent Jones to Jean-Luc Godard weighing in on the sometimes contentious, but always revelatory, artist.
Mauvais sang is the better introductory disc for those who are new to Carax, or who only know Holy Motors. But if very French, gorgeously shot tales of doomed romance are already your cup of tea, then run, don’t walk, to grab both of these. They do a beautiful job of presenting these stunning films, which continue to resonate powerfully in the thirty years since their release.