A Sci-Fi Romance Thriller to Give Papa Godard a Run for His Money

09/24/2009 8:23 AM |


Those viewers who were as exhilarated as I was by the long tracking shot in Leos Carax’s Merde—in which Denis Lavant’s deformed sewer creature gleefully trots down a Tokyo street attacking any and all passersby—will be happy to learn that it has a precursor. In Carax’s 1986 offering Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), which screens at BAM tonight as part of their Juliette Binoche tribute, the director follows a much younger Lavant as he makes his way along another city street. This time the music is David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” not the Godzilla theme, the street is completely deserted and the only violence the character visits is self-inflicted—he punches himself repeatedly in the stomach to alleviate a long-standing pain while dancing and turning flips in time to the music—but the exhilaration is much the same. Actually, Carax’s genre-hopping cut-up of a movie has enough great little bits of invention to give Papa Godard a run for his money. In one scene, Lavant affects a daring mid-air rescue of an unconscious Binoche that looks like it was shot without recourse to any studio trickery. In another, the director shoots a fight sequence reflected entirely in mirror-image, with a disorientingly jerky stop-motion effect.

Set against a future Paris whose only futuristic feature seems to be an odd sense of depopulation—and whose unmodified modern-day setting recalls AlphavilleMauvais Sang can best be described as a sci-fi romance thriller, with the sci-fi elements placed at the service of the romantic ones. After his father is killed, teenaged Alex (Lavant), determined to start a new life, accepts an assignment to steal an isolated sample of the deadly virus STBO, a mission that becomes complicated when he falls in love with the boss’ girl. The virus—which it’s easy enough to read as an AIDS allegory—attacks couples who “make love without feeling,” presumably a common enough occurrence in Carax’s sour future (and ours), but one for which the passionate young man seems unlikely to succumb. At least as far as Anna (Binoche) is concerned, but she seems doggedly devoted to her man (Michel Piccoli with his pupils completely blackened). Still, she’s interested enough in the would-be Casanova to engage him in conversation, resulting in the film’s central sequence, wherein the camera fixes the lovers in two-shot while they recite Carax’s poetry to each other—before another of the sci-fi elements intervenes and provides the not-to-be-couple with as much a moment of intimacy as they’re able to achieve. With the arrival of Halley ’s Comet leading to extreme temperatures, a barefoot Anna is unable to cross the hot pavement to get to the other side of the street. As strings start to swirl on the soundtrack, Alex walks up behind and snatches her in his arms, conveying her lovingly across, a swooning bit of romanticism amidst the general gloom.