Like a Godard film on Quaaludes, 22-year-old Léos Carax’s 1984 feature debut ambles through an expressionistic landscape in search of the perfect tableau, pausing for enigmatic monologues, staring down the richly black-and-white streets of an alternative Paris. It’s a familiar modernist trope — everything is suffused with a swooning sense of otherness and nothing much happens. All the human beings seem to have had their insides scooped out while all the inanimate objects pulsate with a sinister beauty. The main emotion is pain, either dull or raging, and the main activity is waiting.
Denis Lavant is Alex (as he would be again in Carax’s next film, Bad Blood), a young man who has just broken up with his lover and who is waiting to go into the army. Roaming the streets with surplus pointlessness, Alex has a chance encounter with Mireille (Mireille Perrier), who is in the process of her own noisy breakup. Mireille becomes an idée fixe for Alex and he pursues her like the mutant dog boy he (in a certain light) resembles. Her remoteness allows Alex to love her unconditionally. When he finally inveigles her into conversation, she remains opaque and inward. Surely it’s a match made in existential heaven.
For a first film, this is a brilliant display and it’s something of a template for Carax’s later movies, where the persistent hum of cosmic unhappiness would be tempered by a little more narrative. His gift for visual set pieces is already in place; one of the most memorable sequences comes when the camera contemplates the exposed and flashing bowels of a pinball machine. So is his abiding gravitas, that mammoth seriousness which makes him seem both a little ridiculous and a little old-fashioned, as though he had never encountered irony.
Carax is in love with love-drunk suffering and his films depict passion passed through a prism of alienation. They’re true romances for fractured minds.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.