Boy meets girl and they fall in love. Or do they? In Mauvais Sang, the second feature from the director who would later become better known for The Lovers on the Bridge and Holy Motors, Alex (Denis Lavant) is either in love with Lise (Julie Delpy), Anna (Juliette Binoche), both, or desperately trying to be. He’s a minor criminal and a card-shark with good hands, but he’s also painted impressionistically as an intellectual, one who speaks in ambiguous phrases about love and life in an attempt to better the lives of his women. The way he sees it, Lise is better without him and Anna deserves better than the much-older Marc (Michel Piccoli), whom she is in love with. Or does he? If there’s tension, it’s from the existence of STBO, a disease that kills those who “make love without love.” Whether Alex is afraid he doesn’t love or that the women do not love is the mystery that haunts every conversation and quietly complicates his motives.
It’s the scenes in which Alex and Anna talk that are the most emotional and compelling; when the focus shifts to Marc and Alex’s plan to rob the serum for the aforementioned disease, Mauvais Sang loses a bit of its intrigue. But when Carax’s camera allows for Binoche and Levant, mutually beautiful subjects of many close-ups, to simply talk and bathe in one another’s company, the film has an uncanny beauty. Either it’s dead quiet and we feel like these people are living for each other—and for all we know, they are, Carax wisely leaves it unclear—or else there is masterful use of music both classical and pop. Carax is one of cinema’s most daring and brilliant music lovers, and his use of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Roméo et Juliette” is particularly brilliant (and not just in comparing these heroes to Shakespeare’s). The song itself is beautiful, but Carax knows how to put it to images that would have little power on their own, and so every shot feels like an essential emotional revelation. At the same time, Carax trusts his actors, and so we are given a brilliant shot of Lavant jumping, cart-wheeling, and stumbling down a street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” a shot steeped in catharsis that could not be achieved any other way. Carax has equally breathtaking uses of music in his future films, but this one is simple, brilliantly setup and yet absolutely spontaneous, and it’s a joy to behold.
Carax’s visuals do not need the power of music, however, only the power of Jean-Yves Escoffier. His contrast between red and blue amid perpetual darkness and dull backgrounds is instantly striking and symbolic of the love, lust, envy, truth, and spirituality that they ought to be. Carax is at his most Godardian here. The way he sees it, there’s no need for a brilliant plot; if you want that, read a book. There’s no need for some kind of eye-opening dialogue, either; go to a play. When the selective use of color and the faces say as much as they do, when you can utilize jump-cuts to capture uneasiness in the characters, when you can shoot a sky-dive with the understated surrealism on display here, there is no need for these things. Conversations come to abrupt and inconclusive ends because there a conversation about love between Anna and Alex could go on forever. If the phrase “hauntingly beautiful” is overused—and it is—Mauvais Sang warrants it anyway. Mood is created almost invisibly, but it pervades every shot.
It’s only in the film’s final third, when the attention is turned heavily toward the STBO, which feels like a flat and dated AIDS allegory, that it begins to lose its grip. There’s an abstract, subtle poetry in the ending, but it’s brought on haphazardly by an attempt to shove more plot in the final 30 minutes than there are in the first 90, and it smothers the effect. The final images feel like an attempt to resolve a story rather than a character, and focus is turned away from the love triangle and toward the significantly less interesting adults. When the story begins, the magic ends, but its impression never dies.