Jeff Reichert on Juliette Binoche in Mauvais sang
Leos Carax’s second feature, 1986’s Mauvais sang, features a scene so memorable that it has come to define the film: Denis Lavant’s nighttime tear through the darkened streets of Paris scored to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” For just over a minute of screen time, in one unbroken bravura take, the former circus performer jumps, twirls, and hurls himself through space as the camera tracks to follow; Lavant’s run continues after Carax cuts from his wide shot of the actor, but this first, longest shot dominates the sequence. The pair—actor and camera—seem to have made a bet to see which might reach the finish line first; so madcap is the scrolling motion that the corrugated metal siding behind Lavant blurs and flickers. In a film that has, to this point, largely kept its passions in check, it’s a moment of delirious relief. For an ambitious actor-director team at early moments in their respective careers, and on their second film together after 1984’s Boy Meets Girl, it’s an announcement: Carax and Lavant are here, a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig liked the shot enough to nick it several decades later for Frances Ha.
On the surface, Mauvais sang seems very much a movie of men (or boys), made by and for them. Its narrative, in which Lavant’s hustler Alex, son of a murdered thief, is recruited by his pop’s former associates, Hans (Hans Meyer) and Marc (Michel Piccoli), for a daring heist, is flush with crime and machismo. Yet the film is also notable for featuring one of Juliette Binoche’s earliest starring roles. She’s Anna, the young lover of the much older Marc, who is wooed by Alex to potentially dangerous effect for them both. In many films comprised of these elements (tough men, heists, a girl, some guns), Anna’s role would have been circumscribed, potentially marginalized into object status. However, Binoche and Carax refuse to let Anna be pushed to the side. The actress especially seems intent on stretching the bounds of her craft through her rich embodiment of Anna.
Anna is first glimpsed by Alex on a crowded metro car. We don’t see her face, just the outline of her bob, the nape of her neck, the contours of a white cocktail dress. It’s unclear if Alex has seen her face either, but there’s something about her as she walks away from him through the shadowy train that catches his attention. As she passes, in the foreground is an illuminated sign: Pour ouvrir appuyez—To open, press. An invitation. Is this woman an avenue of escape? A possibility for a non-criminal life? An erotic object waiting to be accessed? A Bernard Herrmann-esque music cue jars the soundtrack just before she enters the frame—we recognize that she must be trouble even if Alex doesn’t. As she sits, the lighted sign goes dark and her face is left hidden by its frame. Alex strains to see her, catches a glimpse of her profile in a mirror, then an expanded glimpse in another angled reflection in a subway map on the ceiling. For a second she looks up at the map, and her gaze is briefly directed at us and Lavant. Binoche has done little in this sequence save for walk and sit and wait, yet Alex is captivated.
He exits the train to get a better look, and we catch a glimpse of Binoche in profile, but her hand covers much of her face. For a second, his reflection is laid over hers, and then the train leaves the station. Unlike his younger girlfriend, Lise (Julie Delpy), who throws herself at him, having earlier chased him onto the subway, it seems Alex is more drawn to the role of the pursuer rather than the pursued. Shaken, he heads to the hideout to join the gang, yet he inexplicably sees the woman in white again, walking in front of him across the street. The same stab of Herrmann-esque strings announces her presence and might serve as an alarm to deter him if only he could hear, but instead he follows her. In a long shot, he’s in focus in the background trying to catch a glimpse of her; she’s soft in the foreground, and it’s unclear if she’s aware of her pursuer, desirous or afraid. And then, all of a sudden, she’s gone.
A few shots after Alex arrives at Hans and Marc’s hideout, which features a street-facing wall of glass and interiors stained and degraded like something from the studio of Anselm Kiefer, his eyes widen. A reverse shot pans up the front of Binoche’s Anna, who is now wearing an unreasonably bright red sweater, providing our first good look at her. She looks pristine against the decaying space around her. The movement of her eyes and head in medium close-up communicates something—does she recognize him? Why else would she seem immediately exasperated? Maybe she doesn’t—perhaps it’s just boredom at the arrival of yet another of Marc’s buddies who will surely lust after her like others have before? Or does one detect a flicker of resignation? Does she know what’s to come? Anna doesn’t speak, but Binoche transmits all of these possibilities. Her second shot, another medium close-up, is angled slightly from above as she listens to the men plotting. Unexpectedly, she looks up to the camera and blows at her bangs. A classic pout. The spell of Anna is broken, though perhaps for Alex it’s enhanced.
It becomes clear shortly after the film moves its cast to a skydiving trial on a small airfield that at least some portion of Mauvais sang will center around Piccoli and Lavant jousting over the affections and person of Binoche, but from the set of her jaw on the plane en route to the drop site, it’s also clear that Anna, who still has not spoken, is less than pleased by the antics of these men. Her first line in the film, uttered later, back at the hideout, is simple: “I’m going to bed.” She then demands a kiss of Piccoli, and that he says he loves her. And when he’s reticent, almost embarrassed to display emotion in front of another man, Lavant pounces on him. The conflict is half scary, half ridiculous; Carax pauses the action so that his actors can smoosh each other’s faces against glass. But Binoche goes wide-eyed, like a silent-movie star in terror, until she cries out: a flailing hand has caught her face. The scuffle has also taken its toll on Piccoli—he has to be sedated and put to bed due to a heart condition. While he slumbers, the film’s unlikely centerpiece begins.
A shaken Anna sits with Alex, not quite crying at first. Binoche withholds the teardrop, allowing for some time to pass before she lets it fall. Alex is still intoxicated by the back of her neck. In response to her shock and sadness, he tells her he likes her moist lips—“Like old time actresses.” To cheer her, he performs magic tricks, throwing an apple up in the air, only to have it come down a leek, or a pile of fresh veggies crashing over his head. In a series of intercut reaction shots, Binoche performs increasing surprise and delight, though we only see her eyes peering above or through brightly colored pieces of tissue paper she holds up to her face like a mask.
This long, lingering twilight idyll stops the movie in its tracks. For some time we forget entirely the idea of the heist that animated the narrative. Binoche, who has thus far seemed intentionally incongruous, here assumes an otherworldly quality. This is partially due to the play of harsh white light that Carax casts over her porcelain skin, wide brown eyes, and short bob. Even when she’s in shadow, Binoche somehow still dominates the frame. But it’s also in how she conveys her conflicted love for Piccoli, as expressed in a monologue breathed to us as if from far away: “Right off, he looked at me with an inventor’s eyes, A scientist’s eyes, as if I were a priceless discovery, the solution to something, something secret and mysterious, that was deep down inside him, that is still there, and that I sometimes come very close to…” The camera seems to feel the same. As she speaks, she stares off into the distance, at key moments swings her look around to Lavant.
Anna only softens to Alex when he begins to let his guard down to reveal the bruised romantic underneath the bristling machismo. We know immediately, though the communication is again wordless. All of a sudden, her look is different. There’s a hint of a smile; her eyes are gentler. In a long, seated shot with Alex, it becomes clear Anna is in love with him, that there is a possibility for freedom with him and is also fully aware that this love will be doomed. It’s become cliché to valorize actors for doing much with small gestures, for conjuring an emotion with the tilt of a head, the pursing of lips, the furrowing of a brow. What Binoche is able to do in Mauvais sang is something different: she tells a story.
During this nocturne, there are shots of Binoche clothed in a bright blue robe, which last as long as Lavant’s more famous run/dance, her eyes continually wide, her face flickering. This nighttime exchange between Alex and Anna, which flirts with comedy, tragedy, romance, disgust, pain, and love, is as perhaps as close to a mission statement for his films that Carax has yet offered and as romantic as movies get. In contrast to this sequence, with its choreographed movements within movements, miniature arcs and climaxes, the heist itself feels deliberately half-assed. It goes awry, with Lavant escaping the police by holding a gun to his own head. (A metaphor for the heist movie at large—are all crime movies ultimately hostage to their own conventions?) Should we be surprised that it went badly, given that the preparation for the act seems to have consisted solely of a scene of the three criminal masterminds driving around shirtless in a convertible?
Lavant hurls his body through space, brashly commanding our attention. But again and again through Mauvais sang, Binoche stops the movie cold just by sitting still. At film’s end, with the team fleeing, Alex and Anna both spy a woman in white walking by the side of the road who looks identical to the woman Alex saw on the subway and followed on the streets. Was that actually Anna he saw on the train? Has this all been a case of mistaken identity? After Alex is shot to death at the airfield, Binoche leaves Marc behind and her life with him behind, running away, her arms outstretched. Perhaps the woman at the side of the road was some other version of her, one still surrounded by and buffeted by the whims and desires of careless men. But for now, Anna runs off. She might take flight, just as the actress portraying her soon would. Mauvais sang was Anna’s story all along.