It takes a while for Leos Carax to get comfortable. He takes a smoke break before there’s anything to break from, then sits lightly on a couch as if he might move or flee at any moment. He speaks so quietly that you have to lean in to hear yet his firm gaze warns against coming too close. Seemingly content to fade away, he then slowly turns it on. As with his increasingly sporadic film projects, you have to give him time.
Off the cinematic radar for nearly a decade, Carax is back with his first film since 1999’s “Pola X.” A ferocious thirty-five minute farce indelicately titled “Merde,” it chronicles the face-licking, grenade-throwing exploits of a wild-eyed monster-man, played by long-time Carax collaborator Denis Lavant, who rises from the sewers and brings hysterical anarchy to the streets of Tokyo. Carax’s short is the middle passage of “Tokyo!,” a modern-day triptych showcasing self-contained takes on Japan’s capital city by Carax, Michel Gondry (“Be Kind Rewind”) and Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”). After debuting in the Un Certain Regard section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film opens in New York on Friday.
Working at a clip that Terrence Malick and Axl Rose could relate to, Carax has made only three films in twenty years, and just four since his acclaimed 1984 debut, “Boy Meets Girl.” A onetime enfant terrible, Carax is now forty-eight years old. Though still youthful and strikingly petite, his tussled hair has greyed and his lips purse tightly as if against a lifetime of indignities. “People think I have problems with budget because of that one film,” he says, alluding to the notoriously inflated costs for, “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1991) his masterful mess about a combustible love affair extravagantly set on Paris’s Pont Neuf. “But my problem is not really money. It’s people.”
The son of a French father (science journalist George Dupont) and an American mother (International Herald Tribune writer Joan Dupont), Carax was born Alexander Oscar Dupont (Leos Carax is an anagram of Alex and Oscar) and raised near Paris. Like Godard and Truffaut before him, he was a Cahiers du Cinema critic before making films. He wrapped his first short while still in his teens and a feature-length debut of startling visual and formal maturity, “Boy Meets Girl,” before turning twenty-four. By the time “Mauvais Sang” (1986) appeared – a gorgeous, hip, bleeding heart mash-up of noir, sci-fi and boho romance from left of nowhere – his was the uncompromising face of a new French cinema.
“He’s barely older than me but I remember looking up to him,” Gondry enthuses. “I wasn’t even thinking of becoming a filmmaker but he spoke to my generation in a very strong way.” Having Carax’s name attached to “Tokyo!” was a strong incentive for Gondry’s own involvement. “For French cinema he was the ideal between popular film and something artistic,” he says, marveling at how the young Carax navigated between silly bourgeois entertainments and the suffocating influence of the Nouvelle Vague. “He was independent and new.”
Yet with his rising profile came a reputation for being difficult For Carax it all comes down finding the right group of collaborators – which he admits gets harder all the time. “Now people are much less adventurous. There’s a real cowardice in the movie business. If you don’t meet the right crazy people you can’t do it.”
After years of false starts and slow-to-develop passion projects, an offer to write and shoot a film over a few barnstorming weeks from “Tokyo!” producers Masa Sawada and Michiko Yoshitake was exactly what Carax needed. “This time I knew there was a certain amount of money, there was a date, a place to shoot,” he says. Shooting on DV for the first time in a city he barely knew, he felt energized. Reshaping an existing Jekyll and Hyde scenario, he created a character he describes as a “terrorist monster” for Lavant. An outlandish spectacle in a tattered green suit, twisty red beard and stomping bare-footed gait, he’s an inspired amalgamation of everything from Godzilla and Chaplin’s Tramp to leprechauns and suicide bombers. The latter figured heavily in his conception of the project. “This whole war on terror thing, all this fear that’s been building up over the years,” he says. “He’s called Merde because of regression, because he’s like a child – like all the society around him. Every monster is a reflection.”
The film’s first sequence is a Carax signature: a long, unbroken tracking shot of Lavant barreling down a city street, beautifully chaotic and dangerously alive. But unlike similar shots in “The Lovers on the Bridge” and “Mauvais Sang,” here Lavant’s infernal energy is directed against innocent bystanders. “He’s in a way close to the Charlie Chaplin figure, except he’s this absurd immigrant who cries ‘Why have you placed me among the people I hate the most?’ It’s like he’s both the Tramp and Monsieur Verdoux.”
Though Carax considers “Merde” a departure from his previous work, the protagonists of all of his films struggle to reconcile conflicting impulses. They are misanthropic romantics, selfishly sacrificial and defiantly resigned. They are also all thinly veiled self-portraits. His first three films starred Denis Lavant as a character named Alex (after Carax’s given name), a stubborn misfit and exploding romantic. As embodied by Lavant, Alex is as uniquely enthralling as he is progressively exhausting to watch. “When I was younger I was probably too intense in terms of this character I created called Alex,” Carax says, admitting that he struggled to interact with Lavant when he was out of character. Before reuniting for “Merde,” they hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years. “In some way I couldn’t stand to see Denis in real life. He had to only be Alex.” Adding to the overlap, the second and third films also starred Carax’s girlfriend at the time, Juliette Binoche, while his current partner, Yekaterina Golubeva, was his muse for “Pola X.”
Even Merde, the elfin terrorist, is a version of Leos Carax. “I can say that Merde is me,” he admits. “But he also grew out of these times. He says he doesn’t like people but he loves life. What does that mean, and is it even possible? I want to ask questions like that of these terrorists, these extreme fundamentalists. There’s hate there, but there’s supposed to be faith and love and god, and there’s sexuality there because they think they’re going to fuck some virgins in heaven. It’s all very childish.” Then he adds, without skipping a beat: “I can kind of understand it.”
Though filmed in Tokyo, Carax says that “Merde” could have been set in any major affluent city. And as the end credits attest, he’s already planned a New York sequel: “Merde in the U.S.A.” “I thought of a beauty and the beast story,” he says. “With Denis and maybe Kate Moss. He kidnaps her after a fashion shoot and brings her down to the sewers.” He’s also working on a project called “Scars,” which has been brewing for years, but he’s cautious about saying or hoping for too much. He’s even reluctant, considering his output, to call himself a real filmmaker.
“When you make only 4 or 5 films in twenty or thirty years, that’s the reality,” he says, before reversing course. “Yet I feel I’m the only filmmaker in the world – I could say that also. I know that’s pretentious. I feel that cinema is my country. But it’s not my business. I haven’t worked enough, and I don’t get along with people enough to make it my business. Sometimes I feel like there should be an obligation to produce people like me. There shouldn’t be a choice.”
Leos Carax is aware of the maddening contradiction of his career. He’s a natural filmmaker – a once-in-a-generation talent who’s willing to take chances and risk spectacular failure for the sake of greatness – who makes too few films. But he’s past deriving any perverse satisfaction from that irony. “It’s been so painful. Not to be able to work, I kind of retire. I travel, I read, I write, I have other lives,” he says. “But when I have a camera I know that’s my country, my island.”