Despite the fantasy, whimsy, and metaphysics, in many ways Mauvais Sang is an instructional piece from cinema history. Directed by Leos Carax, and starring Denis Lavant and Juliet Binoche, this film absolutely evokes its more famous successor, The Lovers on the Bridge. And yet, Mauvais Sang feels more firmly entrenched in the currents of contemporary cinema. It’s a quiet film, fueled by noir-intrigue and the unrelenting physicality of Lavant. Arriving in 1986, Mauvais Sang bridges a gap between the classic New-Wave crime cinema of Melville (drawing heavily on the wistful meanderings of Eric Rohmer) and the neo-noir ultraviolence of Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson. Following 1981’s Diva, Mauvais Sang falls squarely inside the 1980’s New New Wave (Nouvelle-Nouvelle-Vague), sharing the space with Jim Jarumsch. The film celebrates and skewers noir clichés including reversals of fortune, mistaken identity, WWII paratroopers, doomed lovers, and one big last heist, recalling Nouvelle-Nouvelle-Vague French critic and darling of the left Jean Echenoz in his snarky observation: “I admit to being influenced by TV movies. TV movies are an art form like any other.”
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Director: Leos Carax
Producers: Denis Chateau, Alain Dahan, Philippe Diaz
Writer: Leos Carax
Cinematographer: Jean-Yves Escoffier
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, Hans Meyer, Julie Delpy
Premiere: February 1987 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 27, 2001
US Distributor: Carlotta Films US
Mauvais Sang follows a simple plot. In the first scene a man commits suicide. We soon learn he has been driven to this by a debt he owes a gangster called “the American Woman.” Two French gangsters (played by the enormously charismatic Michel Piccoli, and Hans Meyer) decide to recruit the man’s son to pull off one last heist, to repay the American Woman before it’s too late. The son, played by Denis Lavant in full Marcel Marceau glory, is starry-eyed card-shark and hustler, ready for a fresh start.
The plot gets more complex, as you consider the heist: a plot to steal the vaccine for a virus sweeping the country transmitted by lovers that do not love each other. The film also features Julie Delpy, fawnlike at sixteen in her first major role.
Lavant displays the wide range of his physical humor chops and Binoche is captivating as a chilly gangster’s moll who never really unfreezes. In one of the best scenes, Binoche rebuffs Lavant’s loving advances and sends him off onto the street as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” comes on the radio. Lavant proceeds to sprint and cartwheel. The scene was so memorable, Noah Baumbach remade it in 2012’s Frances Ha, but the original is startlingly good.
Mauvais Sang evokes pictures like Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket and James Gray’s The Yards, because it’s a taut crime film, deeply indebted to classic noir, that’s actually about relationships, and displays the promise of greater maturity and complexity. The most exciting thing about Mauvais Sang, is the way it hints at the filmmaker that Leos Carax will become. His future is bright, even as Denis Lavant’s lovable card-shark is doomed.