“I’ve only loved girls with dead fathers,” Alex (Denis Lavant) tells Anna (Juliette Binoche) during a sleepless night of romantic near-connection. Is it any surprise that enfant terrible Leos Carax would so explicitly link the ecstasy and agony of puppy love to a father figure? After all, he has spent most of his career transcending the influences of his spiritual forefathers Jean-Luc Godard and Philippe Garrel (both of whom have cast their surrogate son in their own films) by shooting off an arsenal of spitballs and fireworks at both the screen and the public. (Following the Cannes 2012 premiere of Holy Motors, Carax explained his relationship to the latter thusly: “I don’t know who is the public. All I know is it’s a bunch of people who will be dead very soon.”) Per J. Hoberman’s description of Pola X, Carax is working in a “seriously romantic” mode all his own, and his 1986 sophomore feature, Mauvais sang, finds him at the height of his lovesick powers.
In a not-too-distant future, fresh-out-the-joint cardsharp Alex helps his recently deceased career-criminal father’s partners Marc and Hans (Michel Piccoli and Hans Meyer) steal a vaccine for “STBO,” an AIDS-like virus caused by “loving without love” that is ravaging Parisian teenagers from a monolithic, Alphaville-esque max-security high-rise. Ironically nicknamed langue pendue (chatterbox) for his reluctance to speak, Alex is also on the run from his girlfriend Lise (Julie Delpy), whose clingy, obsessive affection overwhelms and repels him. (In Alex’s defense, he does give her his motorcycle in exchange for breaking her heart.) All too predictably, Alex falls hard for Marc's much younger girlfriend, Anna, who divides her time between begging Marc for some tenderness and drifting closer to the quiet, short guy who does a ventriloquist act.
But as Dennis Lim and Jonathan Rosenbaum have pointed out, the plot of Mauvais sang is an excuse for Carax’s extra-narrative “film poetry”: dropping Lavant, Binoche (Carax’s then-girlfriend), and Piccoli from a plane (sans stuntmen), Lavant breathlessly sprinting through the vacant streets of Paris in time to David Bowie's “Modern Love,” or distorting and analyzing Binoche's face through the staggered use of black frames and accelerated motion. The film is almost single-mindedly focused on cinema’s capacity to render affect with an immediacy and sensuality possible only through montage—a kind of thinking with the camera that harkens back to the silent era, whose aesthetics the film directly references during a non-sequitur sequence with inaudible dialogue and optically printed footage.
Concerned equally with gesture as confounded desire, Carax’s general sensibility is that of the excluded voyeur, a role he gives himself for his brief on-screen cameo (revisited with his pajama-clad turn in the prologue of Holy Motors). In Mauvais sang, everything is a product of sleight of hand—the film was almost entirely shot on a soundstage, thanks to a healthy advance on receipts from the Centre National du Cinéma—but it nevertheless resonates emotionally, carrying the distortions that come from looking from the outside in.
The film’s overall punch is largely attributable to Lavant, Binoche, and Piccoli, but it is Delpy whose evocation of spurned love arguably steals the show. Her pale constitution forms sharp contrasts within Carax’s dark compositions, which are marked by inset shadows, deliberately dull grays, and striking primary colors. Jean-Yves Escoffier’s ravishing cinematography curiously places Mauvais sang into dialogue with the so-called “advertising aesthetics” of the cinéma du look camp (Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beneix, etc.) from which Carax actively sought to dissociate himself. In a Cahiers du cinéma interview published at the time of the film’s release, Carax explained: “I in no way feel contemporary with the films which are coming out . . . Mauvais sang is a film which loved cinema, and which doesn’t love today’s cinema. And that’s important to me. Not to isolate myself or to be badly thought of by other filmmakers, but so that it is seen for what it is by the people who will love it.”
But due to the intensity of its expression of “a love that burns quickly but lasts forever” (as Alex puts it at one point), Mauvais sang does ultimately make good on the then 26-year-old Carax’s wish to be both separate and loved. There would be several fascinating films maudits and comebacks in the years to come, but this one remains the most lovable.