MAUVAIS SANG (Bad Blood) A
aka: The Night Is Young
France (116 mi) 1986 d: Léos Carax
Do you believe in love that comes quickly, that strikes quickly, but which lasts forever?
—Alex (Denis Lavant)
A gangster film told using bold primary colors which, like his earlier film Boy Meets Girl (1984), is another modern take on the irrepressibility of romanticism that so often leads to the impossibility of love. Made when Carax was having an affair with Juliette Binoche, this is largely written for her, as it is another dreamlike idealization of forbidden love. While many of the French New Wave films dealt with the anguish of love, where Truffaut’s work in particular is full of pain, loss and unrequited love, more seemed inspired by the existential angst of modern youth, filled with carefree moments of risk taking and rebellion, often leading to heartbreak and senseless tragedy, where Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960), BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964), or PIERROT LE FOU (1965) spring to mind. While Carax was obviously inspired by these early Nouvelle Vague films, his real interest seems to be Silent films, where like Guy Maddin, his central focus is examining the hidden layers under the surface, often revealed through an experimental or surrealist visual style that uncovers darkly contained fantasies or fears. One of the unsung gems of 1980’s cinema, what Carax brings to the screen is an explosion of raw emotion, shot once more by Jean Yves Escoffier, but rather than the morbid black and white obsession of his earlier effort, he uses color as an extension of emotional discovery, where a seductive thread runs throughout the film, as the story follows the romantic exploits of the director’s alter-ego Alex (Denis Lavant). Initially Alex is smothered by the love of a beautiful young teenage girl Lise, Julie Delpy in one of her earliest film appearances, who remains infatuated with him even as he attempts to abandon her, literally running away at first, hoping to get a new start in life. But in his head, Lise is a constant presence, like the picture of innocence, where she never really goes away, and he continues to address her throughout the film in dreams and voiceovers.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the opening is Alex’s answering machine which plays the bombastic opening theme of Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet Dance of the Knights YouTube (3:17). The film quickly delves into a film noir thriller populated by underworld characters, but only out of reverence to an earlier era of cinema. After receiving word his father has been killed under mysterious circumstances, perhaps by the American, the aging and decrepit looking Carroll Brooks from his previous film, Alex falls in with his father’s old gang, led by Michel Piccoli as Marc, a father figure who remembers him as a child, when he interestingly refused to talk, preferring to remain silent, developing the nickname “Tongue Tied.” The first glimpse of Anna (Binoche) is on a bus, where emotions are elevated through a surge in symphonic music, a complete stranger that catches Alex’s eye, seen through reflected images, while the next time she is all shadows and light expressed through German Expressionist imagery. When they finally meet, she appears like an apparition draped in red, a kind of porcelain doll that suddenly comes to life, where a young Binoche has never looked more innocently fragile or as splendidly beautiful, but she is the girlfriend of Marc, easily twice her age. There is the barest outline of a story with Marc masterminding a criminal heist requiring the services of Alex, a street hustling cardshark whose quick and nimble hands can crack open a safe, actually taking his father’s place, where they amusingly must learn to parachute. At the airport, Marc greets Serge Reggiani, playing a pilot named Charlie in the movie, who is interestingly introduced with Marc by greeting one another in a Silent era vaudeville routine. Marc pushes to the point of browbeating Anna to jump out of the plane, clearly against her wishes, but she does it anyway, where she eventually faints, rescued by Alex in a fascinatingly shot air sequence shown here: Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986) - Parachuting YouTube (3:37).
Rather than follow the crime, Carax instead follows the romantic attraction of Alex and Anna, easily the most compelling aspect of the movie, becoming the emotional center of the picture. This is all set in motion in a masterful sequence with Alex now hopelessly in love, opening with Serge Reggiani (the pilot seen earlier) heard on the radio singing “J'ai pas d'regrets (I regret nothing),” followed almost immediately by David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” Mauvais Sang YouTube (4:10), in what is easily the shot of the film, where Denis Levant, as if shot by Cupid’s arrow, streaks down the street in an endlessly long tracking shot, stumbling, cart-wheeling, eventually breaking out in a full sprint, where the buildings and lampposts go by in a blur of sheer exhilaration, one of those giddy outbursts of spontaneous emotion, running as if trying to take flight and be free. When he returns to her, she reminds him she’s in love with Marc, remaining unattainable, but the two are still infatuated with one another, unable to say goodnight or let go, offering lengthy monologues of dreamlike nocturnal yearnings. In Anna’s world, it grows slowly surreal where the phone rings, but there’s no sound, or she speaks and her mouth moves, but there’s still no sound, yet with Alex his voice sounds so rapturously lyrical. In another romantic surge, to the music from Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (1952), Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986) - Baby Steps YouTube (5:21), Mireille Perrier, the star of his earlier film, appears in a dreamlike sequence where Alex mimics the wobbly steps of her baby. After a brief kaleidoscope of color, the screen turns silent, reassembling all the various players in the film in a powerfully original Silent era montage, a return to innocence, where Carax has a special fondness for close-ups and gestures, not to mention an underlying melancholy in silence. MAUVAIS SANG is a hauntingly beautiful film, one where we never truly comprehend the depth of the relationships, where Carax equates the love for a woman with the possibilities of cinema itself, where like his first film, mood pervades every shot, often with a lush romanticism pre-dating Wong Kar-wai, who hadn’t really defined himself until his films of the 90’s. But the visual expression and stylized composition in this film often veer toward moments of ecstasy, including the final shot, another lengthy sequence where running continues to suggest the possibilities of flight, freedom, escape, or perhaps even a metamorphosis.