There are songs, movies, actors that mark us indelibly during our youth. Even though we can’t process those marks profoundly while rushing deliriously into the adult world, they keep coming back, like some sort of somatic memory or reflex.
I saw Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang some time in the 1990s. Though a far cry from being a true cinephile back then, watching that movie was a pure blessing for it carved in me a long-lasting triangle of love: the film director, the actor Denis Lavant and, of course, David Bowie.
You might have already sensed the relentless trouble of youth found in the film if you had spotted that the title makes reference to the eponymous A Season in Hell, a poem by the tragic, emblematic rebel Arthur Rimbaud. Like the poem, the film is a free-fall into the inner depths of the characters, also revealing the two major influences of Carax’s early oeuvre, the hardcore intellectualness of Jean-Luc Godard and the spiritual sensibility of Robert Bresson.
Denis Lavant, in the role of Alex, a young man who becomes the accomplice of an aging gangster (Michel Piccoli), is hired to steal the antidote to a virus called STBO. He soon finds himself drawn to Anna (a very young Juliette Binoche), who is the mistress of his boss.
The film’s opaque colours, chosen to depict the psychological greyness of the characters, are heightened by splashes of luscious reds and oceanic blues that hint at the emotional turbulence of Alex towards Anna. But what makes this movie remarkable – even through the nostalgic lens of my adolescence – is the way the director manages to shift abruptly from the kinetic frenzy of a scene to a standstill of empathic proximity, or in reverse.
Take the scene in which Alex bursts out into the street, running to the music of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. During this almost one minute of linear camerawork, a flood of emotions kicks in. Who wouldn’t identify with Alex running, cart-wheeling, jumping, without recalling the drunkenness of a first kiss, the intoxication of adolescent love, which had the world surrender momentarily to our will?
The scene insinuates the impossible lovemaking of the two characters: Alex’s initial stumbling, as if he has been kicked in the stomach by love, transforms into a frantic allegro sequence. The movement escalates, climaxing into a small ‘thanatos’; there’s distress and pleasure, Alex’s arms clumsily reaching up to the sky or buffeting at himself, his body arching now and then as if hit by thunder. He is still running, hurdling over imaginary obstacles, losing his mind to a point of no return. He tries to reach something, to run away or get closer – who knows? – accelerating even more, speeding up to an unavoidable hiatus.
Alex runs back to Anna only to find her body-shaped mark on the mattress. Their love signs – if there are any – are like forensic evidence: a hair on the red sheet, a cigarette left burning, a blue wrinkled napkin and a room of inconsolable solitude. After all, ‘though love be a day and life be nothing, it shall not stop kissing.’* ●
* e.e. cummings, ‘Thy fingers make early flowers of all things’