Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 42, July 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isabelle Vanderschelden

 

Carax -- Philosophy in Film:

On Daly and Dowd's _Leos Carax_

 

 

Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd

_Leos Carax_

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003

ISBN 0-7190-6315-9

188 pp.

 

A recent addition to the impressive Manchester University Press French Directors collection is the study of Leos Carax by Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd. This book focuses on a significant filmmaker who emerged in the 1980s as the bad boy -- *enfant terrible*, *enfant gate* -- of French cinema, who also became an icon and was supported by the legendary _Cahiers du cinema_, where he had started as a critic and disciple of Serge Daney in the 1970s. This well researched book is ground-breaking in several senses: firstly, it offers a useful introduction to a director whose work is little known in the English speaking world; despite the fact that all his films are available, [1] he is most famous for _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_ (1991), which has been the object of several academic articles in English, [2] and features in numerous UK and American Film Studies syllabuses. Secondly, it provides original readings of the films from a philosophical perspective, strengthening the links between philosophy and film specifically, and contributing further to the understanding of Carax's work, and its complexity.

 

In France, Carax's cinema has been the object of many controversies, fuelled by a discrepancy between the critical response that he generates and his limited public success. He is described in the _Larousse Encyclopaedia_ as a 'misunderstood or cursed artist, who does not believe in Gods, geniuses or critics and who is *l'enfant terrible du cinema francais*'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carax's films have been acclaimed by _Cahiers du cinema_. He was even given the opportunity to guest edit a special issue in 1991 as a showcase for _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_. More generally, however, he has received limited attention from French film criticism, [3] his work tending to be discussed more on a polemical basis. He is considered as a 'cursed' filmmaker, possibly because of the adverse publicity linked to the epic production conditions of his films. [4]

 

Carax's filmography is short: only four films in twenty years, yet there are obvious reasons why the authors should have chosen to focus on this director:

 

1. Carax is viewed as a complex filmmaker, an *auteur*, in the sense that his films are very personal, representing an immediately identifiable world constituted of *Caraxian elements*. They display a thematic coherence, with recurring motives such as the presence of chance and destiny, *l'amour fou*, and the cosmic elements, all of which form the basis for establishing Carax's personal mythology (4).

 

2. Carax's work lends itself well to a re-reading of his work as a philosophical reflection on film which is, as the authors stress, related to the shift in the editorial line and critical discourse of _Cahiers du cinema_ in the 1980s.

 

3. Carax's films have clear literary influences and a concern 'to negotiate a relation with film and literary history' (24).

 

The fact that the book is co-authored by two writers from slightly different backgrounds seems to me to be an asset in terms of its scope. Daly is a freelance writer, director, and academic working on the relationship between cinema and philosophy. Dowd lectures in critical theory and film, and his research involves literary criticism and film studies. This enables them to combine original and complementary readings of Carax's work, that comprise philosophical analyses (metaphysical and cosmogony), and draw upon art and literary criticism. They use a number of sources, but Deleuzian thought, currently a central influence in film criticism, prevails.

 

Daly and Dowd state that one of the aims of their book is to find a critical terminology.. that is suitable for Carax's films. The book explores a number of Deleuzian concepts and terminology with which the general reader or undergraduate student may not be familiar. However the authors ensure that these are introduced with comprehensive (re)definitions and contextual information before applying them to their film commentaries. They relate philosophical issues to film -- in particular, the analyses of key scenes offer clear illustrations of specific theoretical arguments, and they are easy to find thanks to useful subheadings and paragraphing. Elements of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and editing are also analysed. The book is constructed chronologically. Each chapter focuses on one film and develops one or several concepts to highlight specific aspects of Carax's originality as a filmmaker, including the evolution of his approach to filming and the differences between the 1980s films and those of the 1990s. It unravels the complexity of Carax's pursuit, and brings to light a thematic and philosophical continuity. The authors are careful to make their methodology clear from the start (14), which helps the reader greatly.

 

The introductory chapter, entitled 'Genesis of Carax's System', focuses on the director's artistic and intellectual background. Carax's personality is only explored in as much as it is relevant to the understanding of his work. It is mostly through two different but complementary critical approaches, the first philosophical and the second literary, that Carax's oeuvre is presented and analysed. In this Introduction, the authors identify the character of Alex as an innovative new type of protagonist for cinema (see also 133). He represents undoubtedly Carax's alter ego, and is present in the first three films as one of the manifestations of his auteurist pursuit. Alex, played by Denis Lavant, is described as 'an acrobat who walks on two tightropes simultaneously' (39), and emphasis is placed on movement and the body. Another motif of Alex's persona is *l'amour fou*, a form of total fusion accompanied by a loss of identity through an impossible pact (157). Daly and Dowd give Alex a triple identification (4-6) as: 1, an *orphan of chaos*, 'who is seeking out of limit experiences'; 2, an *autiste bavard* (autistic male-chatterbox); and 3, an *enfant vieillard* (elderly child) 'who occupies a temporality which takes him beyond mere youth'. They argue that Carax's characters always 'fall short or are somewhat in excess of 'character' . . . They are presented less as formed, reified types, or exemplars, than as *supple individuals*' (5) -- as defined by Deleuze and Guattari with reference to the concepts of the molar and the molecular.

 

The book also explains Carax's auteur status and New Wave heritage through his close links with _Cahiers du cinema_. He served his apprenticeship at the school of the Nouvelle Vague (131) and was 'so immersed in the _Cahiers_ culture in the late 1970s' (12) that his films (especially those made in the 1980s) bear the direct influence of _Cahiers_-associated directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Philippe Garrel, Andre Techine, and to a lesser extent Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson, and Raul Ruiz:

 

'In terms of Carax's allegiance to the *Nouvelle vague*, there is little doubt that he drew great stylistic inspiration from Godard in particular, as well as a taste for flamboyance, an arrogant faith in one's cinephilia, including the creation of a personal lineage in which to insert one's work, and a recognition of the need for a regular team of collaborators' (36)

 

The authors discuss Godard's influence in detail, isolating aspects of overt influence, but major differences are also identified which help to clear common misunderstandings surrounding the reception of Carax's films. For Daly and Dowd, Carax's specificity lies more 'in the area of baroque *puissances*'. They add that: 'his citing of these models has more to do with wanting to situate and carefully delineate (yet ultimately differentiate) his own set of problems and concerns from them, than it has with any direct mimicking of them. (42)

 

Chapter one is devoted to Carax's first two films _Boy Meets Girl_ (1984) and _Mauvais Sang_ (aka _Bad Blood_ and _The Night is Young_, 1986), and Daly and Dowd comprehensively explore the cinematic motifs and critical concepts central to the director's early oeuvre. They are not so much in agreement with his being traditionally associated with the spectacular aesthetics of *cinema du look*, but rather they argue that Carax's films adhere to neo-baroque principles, for instance 'a struggle between fate and chance, heaviness and lightness' (39). Carax has often been associated with Besson and Beineix, first by the media in search of categories, but also by Raphael Bassan's seminal article. [5] As a result, the *cinema du look* is often associated with these three names in Anglophone cinema books and articles. [6] Daly and Dowd argue for a reappraisal of this parentage, and question the reductive view that perceives Carax's work purely within the terms of an association with surface image and the *look* spectacle: 'The spectacle is not just the spectacle of the *cinema du look*. Carax's neo-baroquism is more profound and paradoxical than the concept of an attention to surface implies. His work is about the engendering of possible worlds, ones not yet created.' (123) It may be argued that this view takes too little account of the spectacular popular element in Carax's films often praised by the public and reviews. Nevertheless, the authors provide a discussion that complements other volumes of the series, in particular Phil Powrie's _Jean-Jacques Beineix_ which addresses related critical and aesthetic issues. [7] In support of their argument, Daly and Dowd return to four fundamental principles of the early baroque theory (45-49) before moving on to the characteristics of the neo-baroque relevant to Carax's work. They follow up on the arguments developed by Bassan, and delve further into the affiliation of Carax's early films with neo-baroque and mannerist trends, which had already been traced in the productions of Techine, Rivette, and Garrel in the late 1970s.

 

Chapter two is a comprehensive analysis of Carax's best known film, _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_. Daly and Dowd start by retracing the troubled production history of the film and offering a critical survey of existing articles on the subject. They then draw upon their own original readings of the film and demonstrate the elements of continuity which characterise Carax's work and the cosmic forces animating them, such as the element of chance, and the body as a site of impedance. Their argument is constructed around the Deleuzian concepts of *supple individual* (already touched upon in the Introduction) and *espace quelconque* (any-space-whatever), which again differentiate Carax's work from the surface images of *cinema du look*. These provide new insights into an aspect of the film which has been much commented upon, namely the role ascribed to the city, not in an optic of realistic reproduction of the real, but rather in relation with the 'possible worlds' already mentioned above. Others aspects -- such as the cosmic elements (water and fire), the sensory (correspondence of the senses), the 'visionary' side of Carax, and the use of music -- are decrypted, which leads the authors to come to the conclusion that, retrospectively, _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_ 'signals a shift in Carax's project', placing it 'within a distinct set of aesthetic and philosophical questions' (132).

 

Chapter three looks at the latest film, _Pola X_ (1999), presented at the Cannes Film Festival after eight years' silence (partly due to the financial fiasco of _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_). Adapted from a Melville novella, _Pierre ou les ambiguites_ (which provided the acronym title -- the X refering to Carax's tenth script version), the film received a rather aggressive critical reception. However, the authors argue that, although 'it bids farewell to the world created in the first three films', it provides the most conclusive illustration of Carax's system and 'reconfigures the central concerns albeit in a context that few, based on their knowledge of the first three features, would have predicted' (141). In order to demonstrate that _Pola X_ has its place in Carax's auteurist project, the authors redefine naturalism in Deleuze's sense, as a model which refuses to 'devalue Nature by taking away from it any virtuality or potentiality, any immanent power, any inherent being'. [8] Naturalism in cinema, as defined by Deleuze, describes a range of filmic experiments that have in common an examination of the interaction between forces of formation and deformation (146). The analysis of _Pola X_ brings together the aesthetic and the philosophical in Carax's films, and serves as a conclusion for the book, arguing that Carax has achieved 'an encounter with the impossible of cinema' (172).

 

The series statement suggests that the target audience of this book is varied and that it will appeal to the general reader and cinephile, as well as to academics and students. The book is accessible, and contains material which can be used both in Critical Theory courses in which film is increasingly used as text, in Cultural Studies and Film Studies courses, as well as, to some extent, in undergraduate modules linked to languages degrees which often rely more on textual analysis. The film by film approach will be useful to students, who may only study one of Carax's films in their programme. It is also readable, despite a few minor typographical errors.

 

Perhaps the authors could have examined in a little more detail the reception of the films and their impact on contemporary French cinema. Although they have quoted from film critics and reviews, little is said of Carax's place in World cinema and on his international reception in Festivals or with the general public. Similarly, more could have been said on whether his audiences understand and/or engage with the philosophical ideologies that he mobilises in his films. Whilst the authors acknowledge the pleasure derived from watching Carax's films, their readings encourage an intellectual reception rather than one which could have been more concerned with visual fascination and spectacle.

 

Although the authors clearly admire Carax's work, they avoid the pitfall of praising the 'genius' that they uncover and do not offer value judgments, leaving it to the reader to view the films and engage with further reading. They clearly express their ideas of film criticism and apply them thoroughly: 'One of the tasks of criticism, if it is to avoid mere caricature hiding highly personal and subjective expressions of preference or taste, or highly prejudiced forms of exclusion, is that of identifying, at the very least, the specific problem or problems that artist has set herself or himself to explore in a particular work' (15). The book succeeds here in my view.

 

Manchester Metropolitan University, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Carax's films received partial distribution in Britain, and had more impact in the USA (although _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_ was only released there in 1999). They are all currently available either on VHS or DVD.

 

2. For example: C. Nettelbeck, 'Layering Culture: Leos Carax and _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_' _Australian Journal of French Studies_, vol. 32 no. 1, 1995, pp. 109-124; G. Hayes, 'Representation, Masculinity, Nation: The Crises of _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_', in Phil Powrie, ed., _French Cinema in the 1990s: Continuity and Difference_ (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 199-210; and E. Ezra, 'The Latest Attraction: Leos Carax and the French Cinematic Patrimoine', _French Cultural Studies_, no. 13, 2002, pp. 225-233.

 

3. Except for _Cahiers du cinema_ and M. Beugnet, 'Filmer l'exclusion: _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_', in _Marginalite sexualite controle: Questions de representation dans le cinema francais contemporain_ (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000), pp. 157-187.

 

4. This is true in particular for _Les Amants du Pont-Neuf_, which took three years to complete (it was delayed, nearly interrupted, and resurrected) and cost five times its initial budget. As a result, it took Carax eight years to find funding and make _Pola X_.

 

5. R. Bassan, 'Trois Neo-baroques francais', _Revue du cinema_, no. 449, 1989, pp. 45-53.

 

6. See for instance: G. Austin, _Contemporary French Cinema_ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996); and S. Harris, 'Cinema du Look', in E. Ezra, ed., _European Cinema_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 219-232.

 

7. See for example the Deleuzian analysis of _Diva_ in chapter three (esp. pp. 64-68).

 

8. Deleuze, _The Logic of Sense_, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 269; quoted in Daly and Dowd, p. 144.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Isabelle Vanderschelden, 'Carax -- Philosophy in Film: On Daly and Dowd's _Leos Carax_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 42, July 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n42vanderschelden>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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