Sunday, March 29, 2009

Carax's "Merde"

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.


A.A. Dowd said...

It somehow never occurred me, when I first watched TOKYO! last fall, that people were going to respond so rapturously to "Merde." Admittedly, I'm almost completely unfamiliar with Leo Carax's work. It's my understanding now that he's pretty well regarded in some cinebuff circles. Far be it from me to suggest that folks are attributing a little more worth to this anarchic short BECAUSE of his involvement in it, but it did strike me as not much more than inspired lunacy. (The ten minute gibberish convo was a hilarious highlight.) That having been said, you make a good case for it, particularly through your discussion of the film's ecstatic aesthetic gestures.

What did you think of TOKYO's other two chapters? My favorite was surely Gondry's, though at this point I've fallen so madly for his specific brand of madcap whimsy that everything he does (even a slight little sketch of dramedy like this) tends to cut straight to my heart.

Keep up the writing, buddy. Brevity suits you too, it would seem.

Danimal said...

Well, it might be dis-ingenious to deny that I value any film simply because Carax's name is on it. As I tried to make clear, there is a certain relationship to his own life - or, at least a connection that I'm assuming - that elevates the film to a degree or two, although I think it works like gangbusters as a satirical/funny/angry short film about nationalism. But, correct me if I'm wrong - isn't teasing out meaning and connective threads between works the entire basis of auteurism?
I like the other two films just fine - impeccably crafted, heartfelt, what have you. I had been warned enough times not to expect much from the film that I was perhaps unprepared (or at least pleasantly surprised) at the level of competency at work. Slight? Maybe, but so were Frontier of Dawn and Two Lovers. Perhaps we might amend "slight" to something along the lines of "not self-aggrandizing". As you mention in your A Women in Berlin write up, we've just suffered through a mighty long season of films determined to teach us something while basking in their own perceived importance - maybe we need more films that are merely "slight" - wisps of films that might actually say something about the way that human beings think, feel, act and, you know, actually live (see also: Summer Hours - the supreme achievement (so far) of 2009).