Leos Carax

Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd,
Leos Carax.
Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2003.
ISBN: 0 7190 6315 9
UK£11.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)

It’s about time we had a book on Leos Carax. Although he has made only four feature films over the course of a twenty year career, he is a major figure for those seeking the renewal of a tradition of boldly innovative French filmmaking beyond the New Wave. It is somewhat of a pity, though, that this book which ostensibly deals with Carax, uses his films primarily as the background to illustrate Deleuzian critical discourse.

Fergus Daly and Garin Dowd are representative of a new group of film academics who still look to France for their ideas, but who have replaced the heroes of the previous generation (Lacan, Althusser, Barthes) with Gilles Deleuze. The break with the psychoanalytic tradition is noted several times, though never argued. In the tradition of most academic writing, it is sufficient to simply invoke a preference for a different set of intellectual authorities to ground the direction of your interpretation.

However, let us be conscious of the continuities here. Films are still examined for their ability to be translated into larger, generalised frames of reference – not the tradition of Lacanian psychoanalysis, but the canon of French aesthetic philosophy. In their Introduction, the authors lay out their intention to see Carax’s formal innovations as representative of “a state of being in the world and a set of aesthetic principles seeking to capture that state” (16). Their assumption is that films are generated by traditions of thought and that interpretation reverses this process, replacing the image with the originating ideas. As with other heavily interpretive systems, the meaning of the film always lies elsewhere: in the writings of Deleuze, Leibniz, Nietzsche – at one point we are even directed into quantum mechanics as a form of explanation.

The really useful historical insight here is that Carax’s films cannot be properly appreciated without reference to the intellectual context out of which they emerged. Central to this context are the concerns of Cahiers du Cinéma under the editorship of Serge Daney. The strongest section of the book deals with the ways that Carax’s first two films, Boy meets Girl (France, 1984) and Mauvais sang (France, 1986), are situated in this historical-intellectual context. This includes not only Carax’s film criticism and the debates taken up in Cahiers, but also the films of Phillipe Garrel, Jacques Rivette and Raul Ruiz as filmmakers working with related ideas, in preference to directors such as Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson, with whom Carax is often grouped as directors of the flashy stylistics of the cinéma du look.

While Daly and Dowd have many fruitful things to say on preoccupations of theme and characterisation in Carax’s films, their central concern is to place his films within a movement (“the guiding aesthetic” [14]) from Mannerism and the Neo-Baroque in the first two films, to a form of Naturalism in Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan, 1999). Their interest is to relate these aesthetic forms to models of subjectivity. This critical impulse involves subsuming the specific under these larger explanatory frames. The primary argument for the appropriateness of the frame is through the appeal to authority. Criticism foregrounds those aspects of the films which can be stapled together with Deleuze’s writing. It is an operation we have all seen many times with Lacanian film criticism, in which interpretation typically ends up as exegesis of the master theorist.

The particular problem here is that these frameworks are definable by a wide range of fairly capacious criteria. Mannerism can be identified through “exaggerations of style, contrived postures and gestures, and scalar and thematic imbalances” (43). Deleuzian naturalism refers to films who’s “formal characteristics foreground an entropic erosion of an ordered or formed milieu or status quo” (146) In both cases there’s considerable room to move, particularly when the criteria touch upon stylistic features which are only of passing interest to the critic keen to pass from the untrustworthy image to the Idea.
These criteria get the game moving to a point where it can soar with the types of French criticism that are often poetic rather than illuminating. The authors tend to replicate rather than explicate this style of writing. For example, there are playful metaphors about “surfing the folds of the image” which leave me mystified (even though they sound kinda cool). Elsewhere we read of hodological space, molarity, athletic fulguration, and hylomorphic form.

I’ve noted that a concern with context rather than text permeates the book. Although the authors note that Carax “aligns himself with the Cahiers project in the 1980s, its return to the image ‘comme une chose plastique'” (23) there is a notable dearth of analysis of the plastics of the image. A “key scene analysis” of Pola X simply notes that the scene in which Isabelle narrates her history to Pierre is “digitally treated to resemble a scene shot at night.” (155) We are told that “Decisions as to angle, framing, lighting and mise en scène facilitate…the displacement of a psychoanalytic interpretation” (156) in this scene, though we are never told which decisions. On p.85 the authors remark on an uncharacteristic montage construction in Mauvais Sang, which is surprising in light of the daring fragmentation of space in so much of the film. The concern with context is such that much of the book is taken up with meta-criticism. Much of the detail from the films is cited from other French reviewers. The more one reads on, the more the films themselves recede until the final chapter on Pola X jettisons the film all together in favour of a discussion of Melville’s novel as an intertext.

Finally, one might note that even if one were to argue for the importance of this body of work as a historical context out of which Carax’s work was produced, it is significant to remember that new contexts are continually emerging in which films can be positioned and re-positioned. Contexts are important in helping us respond to various questions about the cinema. The Lacanian paradigm seems to have receded not because of refutations of its central claims and their relevance to cinema (although these have been written) but because it ceased to engage in a lucid way with the questions in which people who work in screen culture are currently interested. It remains to be seen whether the Deleuzian project will offer us any better.

Mike Walsh
Flinders University.

Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 6-Dec-04

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →