A director only makes one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again.—Jean Renoir
That quote applies to many who step behind the camera but fits few quite as snuggly as it does the enigmatic child of cinema, the French auteur, Leos Carax.
Born Alexander Dupont—Carax’s stage name is an anagram of “Alex” and “Oscar”—in 1960, just as the French New Wave began to take hold. It is with that spirit that Carax has engaged, intrigued, challenged, and entertained audiences with six features and three shorts. Not a prolific body of work, but an impressive one.
Entering the cinema of Carax is not easy. His work is riddled with allusions, citations, quotations, and playful tangents. Take his 1984 debut: Boy Meets Girl, a perfect example of a first film: at times uneven and derivative, yet full of life and energy. As Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, “Mr. Carax is 24, but Boy Meets Girl looks like the work of a talented 18-year-old, someone who still spends more time inside the Cinémathèque Française than outside it.”
Indeed, Carax was a student of the cinema. Still, with all of its allusions and references to romantic Hollywood cinema and the French New Wave, Boy Meets Girl laid down the groundwork for what would become Carax’s 30-plus year career in cinema. Starring Denis Lavant (who would star in four of Carax’s features) and cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier (who lensed Carax’s following two projects), Boy Meets Girl has a texture that is unlike its many counterparts. The movie is aimless while relentlessly hurtling toward its shocking conclusion.
Made only two years later, Mauvais Sang is already the work of a mature director. Leaving behind the grainy, black-and-white aesthetic, Carax opted for expressive color photography and sound stages, yielding a more artificial flavor but allowing Carax and Escoffier greater control over the collision of light and shadow. Mauvais Sang doesn’t just show greater use of expressionism; it favors the poetic over conventional narrative. Neither of these is about plot points and story structure, but the broadest strokes possible. Ultimately, they are about boys meeting girls, but in between, there are moments of dance, gangsters, firearms, skydiving, discussions of cinema, and David Bowie. For Carax, it’s all the same.
Header photo: Leos Carax at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP). A version of the above essay first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 23, “L’enfant du cinema.”
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