Mauvais Sang superficially resembles a traditional “heist” movie. But if you’re looking for a tightly plotted film about an intricate criminal conspiracy, go see Oceans Eleven or The Asphalt Jungle. Mauvais Sang will bore you to tears. French director Carax doesn’t care whether or not two middle-aged gangsters named Marc and Hans and their young sidekick Alex get away with stealing an AIDS like virus from a multinational corporation in the “Darley-Wilkinson Building.” He does care about what the Darley-Wilkernson Building looks like in the evening light.
I first became aware of Mauvais Sang after I wrote a review of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.
Frances Ha, which is a well-made, entertaining, but far more conventional film, has one transcendently beautiful scene. After Frances, an aspiring dancer played by Greta Gerwig, finds a new apartment in New York, she takes off running through the streets of Chinatown. For me, it tied the whole film together. Frances has such joy in movement, such an abundance of youthful energy, that it’s clear that she’s got real talent. She’s not a fake or a poser.
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach aren’t fakes or posers, but they’re not as original as I thought they were. Frances running through the streets of Manhattan to the sound of David Bowie’s song Modern Love is an “homage,” a nicer word for “imitation.” Not only did Carax do the same thing all the way back in 1986, he did it much better. Greta Gerwig is an attractive young woman. Denis Levant, who plays Alex, is a revelation. Short, only 5’3,” he looks a bit like a tiny, simian version of Kevin Bacon. By American standards, he’s ugly. But once you hear the opening riff of Modern Love and he starts running along the sidewalk of Carax’s dark, poetic, urban landscape, he starts to remind you of a modern Vaslav Nijinsky. Not only does Denis Lavant move with an athletic grace the tall, blond Greta Gerwig can only dream of, Carax films the 70-second sequence in front of a long line of aluminium columns, all painted in different colors, the effect of which is to give the illusion of even greater speed, of a headlong movement forward. It’s abstract art meets ballet meets cinema, a deliriously poetic expression of falling precipitously in love.
If social hierarchy is key to understanding Frances Ha – Frances is a middle-class woman living among the very wealthy — then movement, and how movement relates to young love, is equally important to understanding Mauvais Sang. Frances runs through the streets of Manhattan because she found an illegal sublet, the opportunity to stay in New York for another few months. The rent is too damned high! Alex has found Anna, played by Juliette Binoche, the much younger mistress of Marc, his “partner in crime.” When the film opens, Alex, whose father has just committed suicide, is living in a small apartment in Paris. He’s surrounded by hundreds of books. He’s an intellectual. The music on his answering machine is the Romeo and Juliet Overture by Prokofiev. He also makes a living running three-card-Monte games on the street, and has a girlfriend named Lise, played by a 17-year-old Julie Delpy.
What to make of 17-year-old Julie Delpy, other than that she’s so beautiful it’s almost difficult to look at her? I’m half torn between guilt and nostalgia, guilt because she’s only 17, but nostalgia because she and I are from the same generation. I was unaware of Mauvais Sang in 1986, when I was the same age as the film’s two young, beautiful woman, and athletic young anti-hero. But it filled me with nostalgic regret. Now I’m the same age as Marc and Hans. Where did my youth go? In any event, youth, in 1986, was under attack. My tiny generation, people born between 1965 and 1980, weren’t worshiped like the Millennials or the Baby Boomers. On the contrary, we were despised. What’s more, we came to sexual awareness just as the AIDS epidemic was at its deadliest. STBO, which mainly kills young people who make love without love, is clearly AIDS. What’s more, Carax addresses the subject a full year before the President of the United States government even acknowledged it existed. Lise puts a condom on Alex before they have sex. When he leaves her, he makes her promise never to fuck any man without one.
It’s unclear whether the “bad blood” of the film’s title refers to the blood of a person suffering from STBO or to Alex, the son of a father who jumped in front of a subway train. Is “bad blood” the tainted blood that comes from a sexually transmitted disease? Or it is a bad bloodline, the idea that you’re doomed by your family, that “fate” has set you on course for an early death? Enter Marc and Hans, former “associates” of Alex’s father. Hans, a doctor, is a vain, elegant man who strongly resembles Bob from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob the Flambeur, no less of an “homage” than Noah Baumbach’s. Marc is a balding, middle-aged neurotic who’s terrified of the head of the crime syndicate, an elderly American woman simply known as “The American.” Marc doesn’t think Alex’s father killed himself. He thinks “The American” had him murdered. What’s more, Marc and Hans owe her a significant amount of money. They have only one hope. They need to steal the isolated STBO virus from the Darley-Wilkinson Building, and for that they need Alex.
If you can imagine how much money an AIDS serum would have been worth in 1986, and just what kind of security the newly isolated HIV virus would have had, you would expect the planning for the heist to look like a finely tuned military operation. You would be wrong. The planning to break into the Darley-Wilkinson Building doesn’t even rise to the level of amateur. Two middle-aged men persuade a young punk to break in and steal the virus. That’s it. What’s more, he’s not even very interested in the job, even though they promise to pay him a hefty sum of money and arrange for him to be parachuted into Switzerland. Alex agrees to join Marc and Hans more as an excuse to leave Lise than as an opportunity to make money. Lise, in turn, loves Alex unselfishly, totally, almost obsessively. When Alex leaves her, she chases him. It’s a jarring contrast to Alex dancing through the streets to “Modern Love.” There’s no joy in movement, no headlong rush into young love. On the contrary, it’s a mechanical slog into premature old age. Even as he speeds up the film’s frame rate, Carax arranges for the images to be repeated, lending an illusion to the chase that time is “standing still while running.” Life is not only monotonous and unvaried, it goes by faster, faster and ever faster. Alex is running, but in running away from love — not a woman he loves but one who loves him — he’s running to his death.
He thinks he’s running to his soul mate. Anna, played by Juliette Binoche early in her career, is a very odd, very depressed young woman. The film’s last scene will have her running from Marc, but when she meets Alex, she’s obsessed with him. You realize just how much older Marc is than Anna after she lies and says she’s 30 — she’s clearly much younger — and you realize that even a real 30-year-old woman would be too young for Marc. What’s more, Marc has hit an emotional dead end. He can’t run anymore. His life is static. Emotions never leave you, he maintains. They just pile up. Once you feel something, you feel it, forever. Marc an no longer grow as a human being. He can just become more afraid. If he seems oblivious to Alex’s designs on his much younger mistress, then it has a lot to do with how fear has taken over his life, smothering love, even jealousy. He needs Alex, so he ignores what the younger man is doing behind his back.
Alex feels no Oedipal rage towards Marc, only the desire to rescue Anna from her morose, wordless sulking. Anna doesn’t even speak until her character’s been on screen for 20 or 30 minutes. Alex, in turn, who only spoke very late in his childhood and was given the nickname “tongue tied” can see into her silent brooding soul. He’s been there. Lise may be prettier. She may have more force and personal integrity but Anna is Alex’s inner child. Marc becomes his domineering father. By running away from Lise, he’s run right back into his wordless childhood. The film becomes dreamlike, the isolated landscape of a small boy who doesn’t speak. To have Alex, Marc, and Hans plan out the “heist” the way the gang of criminals in Bob the Flambeur or Le Cercle Rouge do, to rehearse breaking into the Darley-Wilkinson Building, practice picking locks, or immobilizing guards, would be to show Marc, Hans, and Alex as three adults working together as adults. Instead, Marc has “an attack” —where never sure what it is — and is drugged for the night. Alex, like a child whose parents aren’t home, gets the run of the house. He tries to win Anna over. It’s not so much that he fails — he does — but the way he fails. It’s the most beautiful, poetic sequence in the film. Not only does it include the “Modern Love” dance through the streets, Carax creates his own private world inside Paris, the dream scape of a child in the body of a grown man. Even though Anna rejects him, he brings her right up to the edge of accepting him. It’s like a long date that doesn’t lead to sex, frustrating, but richly emotional and resonant long after it’s over.
When it comes time, finally, for the heist — Alex wants to quit but Anna persuades him to stay on — it feels more as if Alex is going to his senior prom than to rob an AIDS vaccine in 1986. Always go to the hairdresser the week before a job, Hans says. That way if you get killed her arrested, you’ll look good in the papers. If Han’s feels fatherly, and maybe a bit vain, Marc feels paranoid. He has good reason. Alex has already gone behind his back to “The American.” The heist itself is a parody of a thousand different heists from a thousand different heist films. Alex successfully breaks into the Darley-Wilkinson Building, but someone alerts the police. The heist, it would seem, is blown. Alex will get caught and go to jail for the rest of his life. Enter Lise.
Lise, who’s been stalking Alex ever since he dumped her, has finally found out where he is, and she runs him down just as he’s trapped by the police. Earlier, Alex hurt Lise by running away from her. But now, in a deliriously romantic escape to match the Modern Love scene, she rescues him. He had left her his motorcycle. Alex puts a gun to his own head and threatens to commit suicide. The cops back off. She ride in, scoops him off the ground, and speeds off. You want them to keep riding out of the frame, out of the film, into the sunset, happily ever after. Why they don’t left me scratching my head. But I suppose that would be too easy. Alex is doomed and he knows it. He puts the serum inside a Matryoshka doll. He goes back to Marx and Hans. He’s agreed to take their way out, to go to the airport and have them parachute into Switzerland. He should have stayed on the motorcycle with Lise. The American’s henchman tracks him down and shoots him in the gut. He dies along the way.
But, just perhaps, he achieves his goal. After he dies, Anna no longer feels tied to her older lover. She runs away. Marc chases her. She has become Alex. Marc has become Lise. Alex, who loves Anna as unselfishly as Lise loves him, has saved her life. Or has he doomed her? We never quite find out. But at least she’s finally in motion. She’s begun her adult life. Where it will lead is left to our imagination.