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Screen and Surface, Soft and Hard:
The Cinema of Leos Carax

 

Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López

 

In early 2013, the French director Leos Carax sent a short but pungent audio message to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, to be played in his absence at their annual ceremony, when he was awarded “Best Foreign Language Film” of 2012 for Holy Motors.

 

So, I’m Leos Carax, director of foreign-language films. I’ve been making foreign-language films all my life. Foreign-language films are made all over the world, of course, except in America. In America, they only make non-foreign-language films. Foreign-language films are very hard to make, obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language, instead of using the usual language. But the truth is, cinema is a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life. Good night. (1)

 

The World Cinema politics of this wonderful statement by Carax are impeccable; however, what is most inspiring here is Carax’s fascinating remark about cinema being “a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life”.

 

The need to travel to the other side, a fantastic voyage, a journey through Alice’s looking-glass … or to break on through to the other side, like Jim Morrison and The Doors. It is seductive, on a first experience of Carax’s films, to tie them to this romantic, surrealistic vision of overcoming, transcendence, magical fusion and transformation. There is much in his films, especially in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), which corresponds to this type of hallucinatory metamorphosis, an experience which cinema can give us so well – a divine transport.

 

Think of Denis Lavant (Carax’s favourite actor) in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, a film that Serge Daney described as a sensorium, a house for the senses: as his character Alex pilots a fast motor boat along the Seine in Paris, he looks not forwards, ahead of him, but backwards – and then he crashes through a great wall of water: it is a moment of strong release that makes you jump in your cinema seat. Or, in Pola X (1999), the long journey on foot by Guillaume Depardieu and Katerina Golubeva into a dark, nocturnal forest – and thus into a whole new life.

 

Or the appearances and disappearances of the anarchic, animalistic Merde, in and out of sewer drain openings, in the anthology film Tokyo! (2008), and then again in Holy Motors – always accompanied by the violent sound of crows. Or how, at the beginning of Holy Motors, Carax himself, suddenly with a metamorphosed finger-key (Cronenberg-style), takes us through a door, along a corridor, and into a secret cinema … Passages, corridors, entranceways everywhere. Are they doorways to a magical realm, an alternate universe?

 

However, the more we look at these films, we intuit a different, rather darker logic in them – a logic that finds its culmination in Holy Motors, a movie that manages (like much of Carax’s work) to be both bleak (as a testament, a kind of seismograph) and exhilarating (as a sensory and narrative experience) – at exactly the same time. It is this deep, poetic logic of Carax’s cinema that we seek here.

 

 

The inaugural image of Carax’s first feature, Boy Meets Girl (1984), is mysterious, ambiguous, rather indiscernible, and without sound. It is an image – experimental in nature – on which we will see many variations throughout his oeuvre. It could be lights: distant lights of a city, or along the bank of the Seine as seen from the water and reflected, dancing there; or lights from a fairground, a technological exposition … These are the kinds of examples that eventually take identifiable shape and form along the narratives of his films. But the chain of images begins from this initial, abstract presentation of a luminous form. It could also be stars in the sky: another obsessive, fixation image for Carax. Maybe it is an image of Unidentified Flying Objects, alien spaceships in the night sky: several films, Mauvais sang (Bad Blood, 1986) and Holy Motors, come quite close, after all, to being pure science fiction.

 

Whether the image conjures lights, stars or UFOs, these points of light must be far away – far from the camera-eye; far from the onlooker inside the fiction; and far from us, the cinema spectator who enters this viewpoint.

 

But these emanating points of light are, most often, not far away at all in Carax’s movies. They are dots on flat surfaces, images on walls, in screens of various kinds – all of which are, usually, very close by. But they do not form the kind of screen-wall that the philosopher-essayist Vilém Flusser once wrote about – the flexible and permeable wall, welcoming our projections and our stories; they are more like what he described as the hard, Gothic wall, shutting us into our little, miserable lives and subjected histories. (2)

 

 

Carax is obsessed with walls, and pictures stuck on them, such as in the small Parisian apartments of Boy Meets Girl, the extravagantly painted lair of Marc (Michel Piccoli) in Mauvais sang, or a café in the same film. This is a pictorial trait derived from Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s: one or two striking, cut-out images on an otherwise bare, white wall. But these figures imprinted on walls do not, in fact, open up an alternative reality, as for Alice in Wonderland. These screen-walls tend to mock us, just as they mock the characters, because they block us. They lock people in, rather than releasing them.

 

 

There are walls with stars at the start of Boy Meets Girl, framed next to a closed door; and hotel wallpaper with forest trees at the start of Holy Motors, hiding a secret entrance. Always a promise of depth, travel, transport – met with the flatness of a two-dimensional image and a hard object-support, such as bricks and mortar. Look for the cruel, artificial stars which are imprinted all over the place in Carax: from the floor where Mireille (Mireille Perrier) tap-dances in Boy Meets Girl to the roof of the limousine that transports Mr Oscar (Lavant again) in Holy Motors.

 

 

 

Walls are surfaces, and Carax is fixated on surfaces – on their texture, their materiality, and the functions they adopt. He constantly brings us back to the fabric of clothing, or a blanket filling with blood, or a carpet. Indeed, that inaugural Boy Meets Girl figure is most likely an abstracted, blurred image of Alex’s coat, so central to the film on all levels. In a Children’s Magic Hour-type segment of Mauvais sang, Alex performs tricks and, in each close-up reverse shot, Anna (Juliette Binoche), as his delighted spectator, has her face covered in a different colour and texture of paper – green, yellow, red, grey. All of these surfaces, overlaid with imagistic or pictorial attributes, are effectively dream-triggers, portals to fantasy. Yet, as hard, unyielding surfaces, unlike Flusser’s idea of a wall in the wind (such as a kite), Carax’s hard surfaces also mark a limit, a bar. And physically coming up against a bar always hurts like hell in Carax – like in the moment of Mauvais sang when Lise (Julie Delpy) slams up against the shut glass of a train door after unsuccessfully chasing Alex.

 

 

In Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Alex maintains a constant struggle against all solid surfaces. In the opening sequence, Alex, lying on the pavement, places a hand on his neck and pushes his head from left to right, rubbing his forehead against the asphalt and making it bleed. Later, in the middle of a frenzied dance with Michèle (Juliette Binoche), he stamps his feet on the stone while fireworks explode in the sky, falling like dew drops. Sometimes, this combat takes the form of a subtle challenge, such as when our hero does acrobatic stunts on the bridge, or climbs the metro corridor walls. But this effort by Alex to maintain an elastic, malleable body is always an attempt, perhaps unconscious, to transcend the solidity of surfaces, the impermeability of stone and steel: it is a cry of rebellion against everything that oppresses him.

This poetic system is inverted, reinforced in a different way, by Carax’s extensive use of glass, transparencies and reflective surfaces. There are few mirrors of a conventionally dramaturgical sort: the melodramatic mirrors of Douglas Sirk, Max Ophüls or Todd Haynes. Carax’s mirrors are not to see oneself in, to grasp a personal moment of destiny or change. Glass in Carax functions, rather, as blockage or non-vision – especially evident in Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais sang. Often, we find walls made purely of glass, from floor to ceiling, far beyond a simple window-function. In fact, windows in Carax are rarely used for looking through. In Boy Meets Girl, Mireille never sees, notices, acknowledges or gestures to the lovers just right across the way, through her glass wall; not even when she is dying there. Or, if characters do look through windows, it is to gaze at a scene they can neither enter nor share in. The vehicle, medium or support of vision – in this case, transparent glass – again mocks and blocks these characters.

 

 

Vision – human sight which can never be turned off, which must receive all inputs, and so many viewing-machines as optical prostheses (film, TV, billboards, computer) – is a type of curse in Carax. Which is rather paradoxical for an audiovisual medium like cinema – and this is, in fact, one of the key paradoxes that drive his films. The paradox allows us to understand why blindness, covered or obscured sight, often registers as an angelic, floating state in his work, open to all possibilities – a motif we see in Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais sang and, more complexly, in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, where Alex tries, against common sense, to keep Michèle in her state of encroaching blindness.

In Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Carax creates a fascinating equivalence between liquid surfaces (malleable, unformed) and Michèle’s defective vision, resulting in shots where objects and faces lose their contours and become a smudged mixture of colour and light. For Alex, it is precisely Michèle’s defective vision that allows the possibility of the Utopian, liquid experience they share – whereas, for her, it is only a torment to be endured, or (eventually) overcome.

Let us revert to the infernal, glassed world of looking. Occasionally, in the anarchic spirit of contradiction or resistance, we find smashed or broken glass in Carax – like the punched hole in a telephone booth wall in Boy Meets Girl, or a bullet through a spyglass in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf – but still, the hard, Gothic system of the world stays in place, quickly switches back to normal, despite the momentary interruption or shake-up. This is precisely the plot of Holy Motors: no matter what momentous drama of life and death that Mr Oscar enacts and participates in, there is always, in the blink of an elliptical cut, a return to routine, the schedule, the forward-moving limo, the make-up table with its ever-mocking and accusing mirror that can only say to Oscar: back to work.

 

 

 

Or consider a striking, brutal juxtaposition at the conclusion of the water-skiing scene in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf: after Michèle topples over and Alex dives into the water with her, for a few moments, we see two images superimposed on screen: the water churned up by Alex’s dive, and the street along which Michèle walks in the following scene. In this sudden transition from one shot to another, in this extended lap-dissolve whose effect is less fluid than a direct cut, the violent clash of different elements is perfectly conveyed.

 



Can we take a broader aesthetic and cultural perspective on this system of poetic motifs in Carax? The wellspring of both the energy and despair in his films is a tension we can identify with modern cinema itself, since at least the work of Michelangelo Antonioni: the tension between flatness and depth, between two and three dimensions in the image – and all that the image comes to express or allegorise through this interplay. This is the tension between the image or picture as a plane, created by the camera that frames it; and the image as the illusion of a world, an imaginary space that invites us to enter it, join with it, dream with it.

 

It is a tension that haunts our contemporary era of the digital, and that Carax addresses, ambivalently, in Holy Motors. Are our laptop images, our cell phone images (and so on), flat surfaces or dream-portals? This question preoccupies Carax today; it is condensed, in Holy Motors, in Mr Oscar’s eerily beautiful nightmare image of the pixels on his limousine screen coming apart, deranged.

 

 

Carax’s fixation on surfaces, walls and windows is part of a deep, elaborate engagement with flatness. In cinema, this has a special charge: when an image, withdraws, as it were, into frontality and flatness, we are faced with the screen itself – the movie screen we are watching – as a merely two-dimensional surface. And this also creates the possibility of a drama or comedy of liberation: the liberation of image, fiction and characters into the illusion of a three-dimensional, depth-charged space.

 

In Carax, this movement is always going back and forth; depth changes into flatness, flatness into depth. His quite particular depiction of architecture and living spaces – a key aspect of his work – always occurs on a continuum between spaces that are pictorially flattened, and then suddenly, strikingly deep. Depth explodes, for instance, when the camera tracks along the length of a corridor (Boy Meets Girl), or of a highly artificially constructed, Jacques Demy-style street (Mauvais sang).

 

 

A sequence of Boy Meets Girl devoted to the Paris métro begins with a poster, the size of which we only grasp when a small boy falls into the frame in front of it, trying to sneak onto a train. And, there are sometimes completely obscure fragments of environmental space that remain obscure, unless a character arrives to place them, visually, into context and perspective (another Antonioni trait). There is also a powerful play on edging: the staging of a human action (sometimes involving death or near-death) literally on a diagonal edge that confronts (for example) the hard world of concrete with the fluid world of water – an opposition central to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.

Attend to how Carax frames the Pont-Neuf itself, never in terms of transit or access, but only as a limit: shots are composed to emphasise the line of stone that cuts through images, forming diagonals or horizontals that bisect the frame and split the screen into uneven halves. It is margin between land and water, between the mundane, known land inhabited by the characters, and the magical, aquatic universe of sea or river.

In a scene devoted to Alex and Michèle’s beach adventure, an aerial angle, tracing a pendular movement, takes us from sea waves to snowy landscape. The resulting shot is strange, almost unreal; in it, the white of the foam and the snow are confused; we can scarcely distinguish where one material mass ends and the other begins.

In Carax, the all-important realm of interpersonal intimacy – in his depiction, between man and woman – occasions a particularly paroxysmic revolution of depth exploding from flatness. This is what happens in the shot/reverse shot couplet of low and high that is so surprising in the context of Mauvais sang. In both Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais sang, there are long sequences detailing (to use the title of a Philippe Garrel film) the birth of love. In each case, the sequence begins with the perfect distillation of Caraxian flatness: two people awkwardly positioned next to one another, a wall close behind them, and some image or design figure imprinted on the wall. At a certain point, as the emotional atmosphere gets warmer and more intimate, Carax varies every possible stylistic parameter – re-positioning of bodies, changes in the balance of light and darkness, inventively deframed angles – to open up the space, refigure it, banish flatness, and eventually work right around to a reversed, light-filled angle on the scene.

 



 

In the 1980s, Carax was frequently associated with a group of commercial French filmmakers to which he did not truly belong – the glossy “cinema of the look” ushered in by Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981). But if there is any useful point to be derived from this yoking of Carax to a trend in popular postmodernism, it is this: in Carax, we have gone far beyond a world in which pristine, human individuals are confronted with a world of images or media. They are not, as it were, full, rounded people in a flat world of images, screens and surfaces. That is precisely not the problem.

 

Rather, flatness has gone inside individuals, it has been internalised; they become images and live as them. This explains Carax’s sometimes absurdist taste for visual seriality: not just the thousands of identical posters of Michèle across Paris in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but also, more intimately, the dozens of suburban houses designed exactly the same way at the end of Holy Motors, or the surreal image in Boy Meets Girl of the “baby room”, like the discreet cloakroom at a party. All things (human and otherwise) take on the quality and quantity of serially reproduced, mechanical images.

 





We are not terribly satisfied with accounts of Holy Motors that identify Carax’s artistic stance as being anti digital culture or the computer age, because he is (apparently) nostalgic: nostalgic for the way movies used to be, how stars used to be, how art used to be. Yes, you will hear Mr Oscar lament that cameras are getting so small in this digital era that we can no longer see them – unlike the grand 35 millimetre cameras of cinema’s past. And there is, indeed, an entire poetic system linking the holy motors of the first, hand-cranked movie cameras – the ones that the inventors-pioneers Muybridge and Marey used in the earliest days of the medium – with the holy motors of the limousines, facing their obsolescence and imminent junkyard retirement in a cruel, modern world. And lastly, in this associative chain, the idea of the holy motor is linked to the internal engine of the human body itself, with its primal forces of walking, running, grunting, dancing, fucking – every kind of motion performance it can give, unaided by technological prostheses.

 

But Holy Motors is itself a film shot digitally, and treated extensively with digital effects in post-production. Its superb, hushed sound design can only have been done with digital audio layering and mixing. The film laments the loss of one thing, but embraces, enthusiastically, the arrival of another – and this is yet one more paradox at its heart. If we look back to the start of Carax’s career, we see in Boy Meets Girl the clear celebration of a technological fantasia: lights blinking inside a pinball machine that has been opened up for repair; or the symphony of pulsating lights along a bank of photocopy machines, reflected in another full-length wall-mirror. Always lights: mechanical and artificial, yes, but partaking of that burst of energy that comes with modernism’s industrial revolution – a revolution without which the cinema itself would not exist.

 

The immense fireworks in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf are the supreme embodiment of this dream; there, they are linked to the creation and projection of fire around Lavant’s own acrobatic, circus-performing, touchingly small body.

 

 

Carax’s project is, in this sense, to find ways to continue that first jolt of artificial light in the new world. As he testified in 1991, looking back at an era of popular music that was over by the time he made it onto the scene: “It’s not nostalgia, it’s just the idea that one arrives after something has happened. But on the other hand, the juice, the electricity that this movement once had, I’ve always sought it out in life, in cinema, in montage”. And Holy Motors is nothing if not, at all levels, a tremendous montage of 21st century elements.

 

We have pointed to Carax’s alter ego as someone always sadly looking at what he cannot enter. This is the figure of the Stranger in Paradise, like Wim Wenders’ angels during the first half of Wings of Desire (1987). When Carax gives himself a cameo, it is exactly in this role or position, as we see in Mauvais sang. And what the Carax hero mainly wants is love, full romantic/sexual fusion with the woman he spies and adores.

 

However, in Holy Motors – arriving after so many unmade projects for this great filmmaker, in some sense digesting and summing them all up in a magnificent career gesture – we have advanced to a much tougher stage. Whereas once the romantic agony of Carax’s cinema hinged on the anxiety of whether love could stay the same, or whether (and how) it should change, now there is a flatlining of time and event. Mr Oscar is no longer outside or detached from scenes; he is precisely inside every scene, its centre, its star, the person who makes things happen – without him, nothing could reach its drama or epiphany. Mr Oscar is, in the words of Judith Revault D’Allones, the individual of the spectacle: the entire society of the spectacle internalised, transformed into a sole person who generates and performs it. (3)

 

 

But to be inside, at last, for the Carax hero, is no fun: in fact, it is sheer, unending Hell, a truly Dantean vision. And there is no longer any surrealistic fusion or transcendence awaiting him inside this spectacle; no romantic couple on an island of two. There is only obligation, in the form of the nuclear family unit – and with a different family each night, no less. As Édith Scob (who plays Mr Oscar’s faithful chauffeur/minder Céline) has drolly commented in an interview for the Australian art magazine Discipline: “Family life with the female monkeys isn’t such a blast”. (4)

 

How does Carax film the final scene of homecoming in Holy Motors – which is surely one of his greatest scenes? Precisely, once again, as an image: the camera cranes up, frames Oscar’s family through the window, backed by revolving, shocking-pink disco lights. As spectators, we cannot enter, through the mobile camera eye, the three-dimensional space of the home. And for Mr Oscar himself, it is surely nothing more than an equally flat image that he must live out, a pose he must adopt as husband and father at the window. Just as, in Pola X, the magnificent camera movement right up to a mansion’s window is blocked at the point of entrance: the flat, forbidding image it frames at the precipice.

 

The tension of the precipice, between the flat and the deep, between the old and the new, between the melancholic outside and the infernal inside: this is where the poetry of the cinema of Leos Carax, lyrical and harsh, resides.

 

This material was first presented as an audiovisual performance in Basel and Frankfurt during 2013. A shorter multi-media version appeared in Spanish in Transit online that year, and a longer version was published in German in the 2018 book Oberflächen und Interfaces; this new version synthesises the two. Some of the material on Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is adapted from Cristina’s essay (in Spanish and English) “A Drama of Water and Stone”, in Transit, which was also the basis of this audiovisual essay, slightly altered (due to copyright) for inclusion on the 2017 Kino Lorber DVD/Blu-ray edition of The Lovers on the Bridge. A subsequent audiovisual essay in our Thinking Machine series, Impending (2020),  addresses the endings of Holy Motors and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

 

 

NOTES

1. The audio of Carax’s speech can be found on YouTube here (accompanied by a video montage not made by him). Accessed 12 August 2021. back

 

2. See Vilém Flusser, “Shelters, Screens and Tents”, in The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (London, Reaktion Books, 1999), pp. 55-57. Our 2020 audiovisual essay based on this text can be found here. back

 

3. Judith Revault D’Allones, contribution to symposium “Hail Holy Motors, LOLA, no. 3 (2012). back

4. Raimundas Malasaukas, Valentina Deideri, Mark Geffriaud and Géraldine Longueville, “Interview with Édith Scob”, Discipline, no. 3 (Winter 2013), unpaginated, loose leaf supplement. back

 

 

© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin October 2013


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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