Thirty years after its release seduced critics with a nocturnal, jumbled dream of love and light, Leos Carax’s debut film, BoyMeets Girl, continues to burn with contradictions, seeming somehow to be younger today than it was yesterday. Perhaps this is because Carax has made only four feature films in the interim, each one released in successively longer gaps: Mauvais Sang followed Boy Meets Girl two years later, after which came The Lovers on the Bridge in 1991, then Pola X eight years later, and finally Holy Motors, 13 years after that. The wide bellows of time between releases could be seen as a director slowing down, taking his time, becoming troubled — and many of the projects, especially Pola X, did face setbacks and some poor reviews. But inevitably Carax grew older, more mature, more assured, at the same time that he was becoming more inimitable, oddly brilliant, and ageless. Holy Motors is arguably his best work, and one of the best films of recent years, but it’s a movie only an older Carax could make. By comparison, Boy Meets Girl, which has just received a marvelous restoration, has never looked more youthful or beautifully desperate.
The film opens with a surreal, prophetic scene that glides from a child reciting a jaded, melancholy line about loneliness and life to a close-up of a hand toying with rosary-like beads to a woman calling from her car phone to announce that she’s done with her boyfriend. In this permanently nighttime Parisian setting, Carax’s frequent collaborator and longtime alter ego, Denis Lavant, plays Alex, an aspiring filmmaker, petty thief, and, allegedly, soon-to-be solider. Wandering the streets, Alex grieves and rages over a breakup, in the darkness and solitude passing by a constellation of celestial-seeming stars like himself: the smeary reflection of lights on the Seine, the blinking lights within a pinball machine, the dabbled black-and-white pattern of a kitchen wall.
Like the film, Lavant’s Alex is radiant and weary, longing and defeated, searching and alone, alive and almost already dead. In short, he’s a mess. His girlfriend, Florence, has just broken up with him and is sleeping with his best friend, whom Alex nearly strangles to death — an achievement he adds to his wall map of first times, “first murder attempt” joining his “first kiss with F.” The second time is never as full and meaningful as the first for Alex, and yet he falls in love again, this time with Mireille, a suicidal failed model with the mournful eyes and mooning face of a silent film star.
Carax blends silent-film conventions with Surrealism and French New Wave cinema (jump cuts and aching, passionate monologues), creating an agitated mix of past and present. Jean-Yves Escoffi’s glorious camera work alternates between a silent-era approach to lighting, depth, and background and an inky, alienating take on Paris at night. Old becomes new and new becomes old in Carax’s freely referential style.
It’s no surprise the critical world was taken by Carax. Tumultuous, impassioned, brimming with cinematic references, Boy Meets Girl captures the essence of youth and love, art mirroring the experience of the life of the artist. Levant is Carax and both are Alex — all of them creators and lovers, despairing and ambitious. Alex’s youthful contradictions are at the heart of the film, as in a scene where, wandering the city to forget his heartbreak and listening to Bowie in his headphones, he walks into a bar and orders a glass of milk. Boy Meets Girl is a shot from a similarly young, film-obsessed mind. (Mireille’s room contains a wall-length window that opens out like a film screen, her neighbors becoming both voyeurs and the subjects of voyeurism.)
It’s also a messy film, full of ideas and thoughts that, like those of many first-time artists, are not so much half-baked as not fully baked in. References lie a little too on the nose; the acting is fine, but not great. Yet, for some, these weaknesses will simply be weaknesses. Carax would go on to make better films, but he was never this youthful, this able to make the French New Wave new again.