BOY MEETS GIRL AND CARAX
The controversial director Leos Carax, is best known for the 1991 The Lovers of Pont Neuf (see my earlier post), a poignant love story about two derelicts living rough by the Seine. One of them is a gifted artist (Juliette Binoche, born 1964) who is tragically going blind, and the alcoholic vagrant who dotes on her (Denis Lavant) is pathologically terrified he might lose her. Less familiar is Carax’s remarkable debut Boy Meets Girl (1984), where Lavant (born 1961) appears as the lead character Alex, a Parisian drifter and would-be film director, who has just been ditched by his volatile girlfriend in bizarre almost farcical circumstances. His lover had kept secret from him that she was deaf in one ear, so that when he said to her one night in the small hours, I love you, lying on her good ear she misheard him accusing her with, You have a lover! Groggy in the middle of the night, she had asked him, How did you know? whereupon Alex predictably goes ballistic at the deceit. Even worse it turns out her lover is Alex’s best friend, whom he accosts by night on the banks of the Seine, and nearly murders with a flick-knife. His enraged girlfriend, who has an infant child, then abandons him to go and live in the mountains, but in her car she loads what she calls all his shitty paintings and crappy poems, and makes a diversion to fling them victoriously into the Seine.
This subtle and finely crafted film works partly via thematic parallels but also by original and provocative anecdotes from its unusual yet thoroughly convincing characters. Just as Alex is being abandoned, not far away a handsome young woman called Mireille (Mireille Perrier, born 1959) who is prone to suicide attempts and is a passionate dancer, is being dumped by her boyfriend Bernard. Bernard is so highly strung just going down into the metro unnerves him, and likewise he instinctively fantasises a bunch of idling cops might be about to arrest him for an unspecified crime. He walks out on Mireille who is frozen with grief by his departure, and later he rings and bitterly complains that at the start his love was far greater than hers. But once their loves had become equal, so to speak, perversely he had found himself losing interest, and even been revolted by her, to the extent that he had told her that her breath stank, when it didn’t. After a long while Mireille rouses herself from the aftermath of his nastiness and begins to tap dance rhythmically on a tray, almost like an oriental virtuoso, and the haunting black and white camera work of acclaimed cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, turns this into a poignant little wordless tableau, reminiscent of the poetic economy of a Bunuel or a Kurosawa.
The deafness motif occurs a second time, when Alex turns up at a party full of media folk, artists and foreigners, and plonks down on a sofa between an old man who’s fast asleep, and a shy young woman who is evidently his granddaughter. When the old man wakes it is apparent that he is deaf, and he lectures Alex by sign language that young folk nowadays don’t know how to make conversation and make friends, all of which homily has to be interpreted by the granddaughter. He then tells Alex that long ago he worked as a grip in the silent movies, and when there was any love scene on them, the director would urge the male actors to say something romantic (inaudible of course on silent movies) in order to make the subsequent kiss look more authentic. One of these male actors happened to know lipreading, and he decided instead to mouth bawdy obscenities to his female opposite, which explained the curious anomaly of maybe 2 or 3 people inexplicably laughing in all the packed cinemas, specifically because they also could lipread.
But Mireille is also there at the party, and Alex glimpses her when he looks through the open bathroom door, where she appears to be contemplating cutting herself. He is immediately smitten and when she tells him she is from the Loire Valley and has tried several times to kill herself, he is even more enthralled. They talk about their mutual dumpings, but Mireille stays distant and aloof, so that one tactic penniless Alex adopts is to go shoplifting in order to spoil her with presents. In a very funny scene, he enters a record shop wearing his favourite checked jacket of a kind once sported by the fictional schoolboy Billy Bunter. He manages to secrete one LP inside the jacket, but then growing reckless tries a second, a third and crazily a fourth, until the lining rips, the LPs tip all over the floor, and he flees the shop at breakneck speed.
A few words about the film’s innovative, sometimes daring cinematic techniques. When Alex ascends several floors in an old-fashioned open lift in search of Mireille, he hears a couple talking through the walls, in an amplified acoustic manner that is technically impossible. Their dialogue is definitely not inside Alex’s head, and when you listen closely, you realise it is Mireille and Bernard who are no longer together, reminiscing ghostlike about their past and specifically their lovemaking past. They speak matter of fact about oral sex, anal fingering and the like, and the fact that both of them struggle to give each other what they want, and that they irritate each other as a result. And yet for all the raw and uninhibited detail, there is something oddly ordinary, even touching, about such an obsessive yet sober discussion, if only because almost every couple on the planet will go through their variation of it at some time in their life together.
Parallel with that other worldly debate, at the party there is also an American woman Helen (Carroll Brooks), a widow in her 50s, who when talking to Alex claims she is capable of telepathy. Later he finds her alone in another room, sobbing and beseeching her late husband, for whose death she feels painfully responsible. Whenever he went on business trips abroad, Helen said, she had tenderly monitored his well-being, thanks to her gift of one-way telepathy. But then, once and only once, she had become distracted by something or other when he was away, had forgotten to do the telepathy, and the next thing she knew she had a phone call saying he’d been killed in a car crash in Germany. One crucial omission on her part then, and her husband was dead, and the guilt would surely last for ever…
Leos Carax can get his actors to do a great deal with a minimum of words, partly because some of them are physically extraordinary. Denis Lavant, a trained acrobat, is only 5 foot 3 inches tall and with a face so craggy and a nose so broad, you could spend hours just looking at him and never get bored. Ditto Mireille Perrier who with her wide eyes, jet black hair, and permanently haunted visage cannot fail to be mesmerising. These actors are often statuesque and silent for an extended revelatory scene, and this regularly alternates with wry monologues that are funny and poignant by turn. Farcically the day after meeting and falling for Mireille, Alex has to leave for his army service, and he informs her that he tried to avoid conscription, with the ludicrous excuse that he was unable to sleep in a room full of men. He also confesses that he wants to make a mark in the world, and that he is an ambitious film director, when in fact he has never got beyond planning his movies in his head. It is therefore perhaps relevant that the name Leos Carax is an anagram of the director’s real Christian name Alex, and of the name Oscar, the thing that every film director wants. Given his protagonist is also an Alex, and is also an aspiring director, and that Carax was only 24 when this little masterpiece was made, we can assume that a fertile autobiographical resonance is part of its magnetic power and dramatic authority.
The ending is not a happy one, and it is also where Carax takes most risks. By now thoroughly besotted with Mireille and aware she is not in love with him, Alex goes to her flat where to his horror he has to trail through pools of hallucinatory glistening blood that look like the stains of an oil slick. Mireille has evidently botched yet another wrist slashing, but she doesn’t really want to die, and staggering bravely to her feet she begs him:
It would be admirable at this point if Alex had jumped to it as deus ex machina, but instead he is so nauseated that he faints, falls flat on his back, and even bounces on the spot like a puppet or doll. With this vaudeville antidimax, we are wondering what to feel next, but just then stony, neurotic Bernard who had abandoned her, walks through the door, and hugs Mireille very hard from behind. Unknowingly he drives the knife she clutches even harder into her breast, and the blood seeps through her clothes and the end is definitely here.
The next post will be on or before Wednesday 25th September