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With: Michel Piccoli, Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Denis Lavant, Hans Meyer
Written by: Leos Carax
Directed by: Leos Carax
MPAA Rating: R
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 125
Date: 29/09/2000

Mauvais sang (1986)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Painfully Beautiful

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Leos Carax' second film has been badly described in its current re-release publicity materials. They bring up an AIDS-like virus called STBO, which attacks even at the merest caress. What the notes don't tell you is that STBO is barely in the film. It's spoken of in only one line. No one catches it, and we don't have to watch anyone die from it. The film explains that it's a virus caught by only people who have sex but are not in love. So, in reality, it's more of a plot device, a poetic license, or even a Hitchcock-like "McGuffin," than the whole plot.

I wasn't looking forward to seeing Bad Blood (a.k.a. Mauvais sang) as a result of that description. But I'm glad I did. It's another outstanding work by Carax, the brilliant filmmaker behind The Lovers on the Bridge and the new Pola X.

Denis Lavant (who was wonderfully described by one critic as "potato-faced") stars as Alex, a nimble-fingered cardsharp who makes a living by fooling tourists and suckers on the streets of Paris. Julie Delpy is Lise, his devoted girlfriend. When Alex' father dies, he leaves Lise and everything else for a new start. Before he can do that, though, he needs money. So he joins Hans (Hans Meyer), Marc (Michel Piccoli), and Marc's lover Anna (Juliette Binoche) for a big heist -- to steal the recently isolated STBO virus.

Many other directors who have made heist and caper films have realized that the waiting-around part can be as suspenseful as the actual heist. Carax doesn't even make it seem like a waiting-around part. He floods it with astounding images representing the emotional states of the characters; mostly Alex and Anna (whom Alex has fallen madly in love with). One particularly amazing moment has Alex dancing and cavorting wildly to David Bowie's "Modern Love" as he runs and flips down the street at top speed (the camera tracking alongside him). In another scene, he imitates a baby walking to the heartrendingly beautiful music of Charlie Chaplin's "Limelight" (composed by Chaplin himself, who gets a credit here).

Indeed, Bad Blood reminded me of nothing less than Jean-Luc Godard (particularly Alphaville), who, in the 1960's, often took genre films and used them as a frame for some other story he wanted to tell. Normally, Godard's imitators are just that -- copycats who borrow his style of jump-cutting and whatnot. But Carax is the real thing. Bad Blood is full of newly-invented images bursting with passion and fire.

And, perhaps more so than in his other films, Bad Blood shows a love for actors. Piccoli was a legend by 1986, having appeared in Godard's Contempt (1963), Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967), and Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz (1969). Carax uses the natural lines on Piccoli's face to beautiful advantage, and he comes across as a comfortably seasoned pro, relaxed and masterful. Binoche and Delpy (both discoveries of Godard, incidentally) are stunningly beautiful, and -- like Godard photographing his beloved Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962) -- Carax lets the camera gaze at them and explore the many ways in which their faces radiate splendor. And finally, there is Lavant, Carax' own cinematic alter ego, who has played "Alex" in three of Carax' four films. Lavant was a former acrobat, and every card trick, cartwheel, and fire-breathe he does for the camera is real. He moves like Cagney, a dancer trapped in an actor's body. Though Lavant was first seen in Entre Nous (1983), it was Carax who made him what Chuck Stephens called "the last great screen presence of the 20th century."

Bad Blood plays for only three days following the close of Pola X. It's been difficult to see before and will be difficult to see again, so move it to the top of your list.

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