To judge by his first two features, engaging affairs bursting with precocious talent, Holy Motors director Leos Carax had already mastered filmmaking technique at an age when most would-be directors are struggling to get approval for their final film-school projects. His debut, Boy Meets Girl (’84), is a small-scale black-and-white effort, but there’s nothing modest about the craft on display.
The film is shot like an unusually lustrous silent film that just happens to have early-1980s new wave production design. Seen from the vantage point of 2012, the clunky technology of boho Paris circa 1983 — bulky TV sets, cheap turntables, LPs, rotary phones — greatly adds to the film’s impression of quaint antiquity.
The movie casually follows a down-at-heels young aspiring filmmaker named Alex (punky troglodyte Denis Lavant, who bears a distinct resemblance to the director) as he skulks around Paris during a heat wave. With the threat of a mandatory stint in the military looming over him, Alex endures a breakup, shoplifts some records, crashes a swanky party and pursues a discontented young beauty named Mireille (Mireille Perrier, whose alabaster chic remains undisturbed even when she’s headbanging to the Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia”), who is herself reeling from a busted-up romance. The two finally connect in a drawn-out, wee-hours conversation at a kitchen table during an insufferable society party.
The movie indulges in some twentysomething angst n’ gloom that anyone over 25 will recognize but not find especially thrilling, and which a director who wasn’t himself in his early 20s might’ve had the sense to trim. A pretension more specific to Carax is that the love story ends tragically, with an unnecessarily high body count. Maybe Carax thought this elevated the status of his lovers, and his movie, but the ending suggests that Carax didn’t recognize what was best about his own work.
For Boy Meets Girl is a movie of much greater, and more subtle, appeal than its plot summary would indicate. Plot is hardly what’s important here. Like a lot of first features, the film is meandering but filled with incident, colorful details, bits of business obviously drawn from real life. Carax has a ready supply of little jokes to keep the wayward narrative lively.
More important, for better and for worse, he’s utterly successful in capturing the early 20s’ mindset. You can forgive the lovers’ woozy self-seriousness because of how Carax imbues the slight frame of his story with a winning charm, a romanticism that perfectly evokes the youthful certainty that a life-changing encounter is just around the corner. It’s an optimism that triumphs over all the hang-ups common to that age — crappy apartments, no money, no direction — so the forced melodrama of the downbeat ending denies everything that’s best, and most true, about the movie.
The Alex of Boy Meets Girl rises above his cruddy boho milieu through the force of his imagination. As the primeval David Bowie number “When I Live My Dream” plays on the soundtrack, Alex walks along the Seine at night framing shots with his hands just like a director would, and a viewer seeing the film today can only wonder if this “Alex” isn’t already mentally composing shots for Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. The mood is one of adolescent expectation: Alex’s life is about to really begin, and somewhere in the streets of Paris a great love affair and some great artistic achievement are waiting.
End prologue. The Carax story really gets going with 1986’s Mauvais Sang, a movie even more capricious and openhearted than Boy Meets Girl.
For more reviews of Leos Carax’s films, click here.