Leos Carax, France’s most interesting director of the last few decades, has made just five features in the last 30 years (Boy Meets Girl, 1984; Mauvais Sang, ’86; Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, ’91; Pola X, ’99, and of course Holy Motors, 2012), and yet his films make up a formidable body of work. Taken together, his five movies chart his progression from charming enfant terrible to maestro of deranged spectacles.
Along the rocky path of his career, Carax has been celebrated as a boy genius and jeered and derided as a fraud. The director has won awards, bankrupted producers, conducted affairs with his leading actresses, and in general shown a stubborn willingness to suffer for his art. What more romantic trajectory could there be for a virtuoso auteur?
Even the occasional wrong turns in Carax’s work look better in retrospect (witness the grand folly of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf). Seen-it-all cinephiles on these shores can’t help thinking That’s my guy! upon walking out of a Carax screening.
Carax was born Alex Dupont in 1960. The boy wonder wasn’t one to shy away from pretension: his assumed name is an anagram of “Alex Oscar,” alluding to his childhood dream of winning an Academy Award. He dropped out of school while still a teenager, which isn’t surprising given his early work. To judge by his first two features, engaging affairs bursting with precocious talent, Carax had already assimilated 70 years of filmmaking technique at an age when most would-be directors are struggling to get approval for their final film-school projects.
Finally getting a U.S. release thanks to Carlotta Films (is “belated” really the word for a movie that’s 30 years old?), Carax’s debut feature 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 2014, 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, tellingly named Alex (who else but Denis Lavant, a punky troglodyte in those days, who bore a distinct resemblance to the young Carax) 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 (French people have a special dispensation to act this way, of course) 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 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 self-consciously romantic than Boy Meets Girl. You can read about that movie here — or better yet, watch it.
Visit Carlotta Films’ site to find out where Boy Meets Girl will be playing in the U.S.
You can watch the trailer for Boy Meets Girl here: