Emerging from the sewers of Tokyo to the strains of Akira Ifukube’s “Godzilla” score, Merde is dirty, unkempt, with long, claw-like finger nails, a bizarre hooked beard and a dead, milky white eye – Denis Lavant strikes an impossible figure, his body capable of contortions and configurations seemingly not possible with regards to normal human physiology. His increasingly violent escapades range from stealing cigarettes and flowers to licking arm pits to, eventually (almost inevitably), fire bombing the Japanese populous with WWII era grenades. A cultural terrorist? The return of the historical memory or the repressed “other”? Lavant returns to his sewer abode, limping past a burned out tank and a strategically placed Japanese rising sun, only to reemerge as a force of pure anarchic chaos. The forces of law and order never far behind, Lavant is eventually captured by Tokyo authorities and put on trial. Coming to his defense is superstar French attorney Jean-François Balmer, who (mysteriously) shares Lavant’s crooked beard, pupil-less eye and mysterious language (a language based on grunts and violent gesticulations, which leads to a hilarious, minutes long, subtitle free conversation between the two – it is Marx’s Bros inspired lunacy). Director Leos Carax then embarks on a series of familiar pop culture tropes – religious cults spring up in honor of Lavant’s “Merde”, his image is plastered on posters and tee shirts in a striking, black and white print that resembles a generation of Che merchandise, action figures, etc. But Lavant remains incorrigible – unrepentant, he’s given the death penalty and hung, only to then be resurrected. The film ends with a joking text, a taunt of future installments – coming soon, “Merde in USA” (Godard would approve).
Merde as punk rock Jesus Christ? Perhaps it is Carax himself, returning from a decade in the wilderness to provoke once again. The victim of a series of follies – some of which might have been his own doing – Carax seemed to disappear after the hugely expensive, and commercially unsuccessful, Lovers on the Bridge, which led to a lengthy gap in production, before returning with Pola X, another commercial and critical flop (that Pola X might remain his masterpiece, a highly personal, dense experience full of weird symbols, codes, and genre mutations, all in the service of a main character literally dying for his art work, led some people to question Carax’s sincerity, if not his sanity. It remains their loss). A decade long separation for Lavant and Carax; it is difficult for me to separate the two, Lavant long Carax’s preferred on screen surrogate, and one who has gone from boy-like innocence in the throes of first love (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood) to a an old man (Denis’ Beau Travail), his body chiseled out of granite, his face creased with lines that seem the result not of aging but of a particularly brutal knife fight. Lavant’s initial rampage as Merde – a long, graceful backwards tracking shot down a Tokyo sidewalk, Lavant seemingly finding his feet for the first time; stumbling, but a graceful stumble – the movement, of the human body and of the camera, harkens back to Bad Blood - a jubilant, younger Lavant, in a moment of ecstasy, cart wheeling, skipping, jumping, running down a Parisian sidewalk, Carax’s camera barely able to keep up to this fierce explosion of pure energy, this little ball of fury that has a name. Carax himself seems drunk with the possibilities of the camera, indulging in long tracking shots, split screens, extreme close ups and more meditative wide shots – it is almost as if he is reacquainting himself with an old lover, this camera that he hasn’t seen, or touched or caressed in far too long. I look forward to Merde in USA – lets just hope it doesn’t take another decade before it happens.