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Classic Movie Review: 'Mauvais Sang'

by Sean Patrick 5 years ago in review
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Director Leos Carax's French crime movie turns 30 years old.

Mauvais Sang or Bad Blood, the English title, stars Dennis Levant as Alex, a small time criminal about to break into the criminal big time. After the death of his father, Alex is sought by his father’s former associates, Marc (Michel Piccoli) and Hans (Hans Meyer) to be part of a heist that will require his quick hands. The heist involves stealing the cultures of a dangerous virus that is ravaging France, a plague that affects those who make love without being in love.

The esoteric virus is a relatively minor player in the drama of Mauvais Sang which is far more interested in the love triangle of Alex, Marc and Marc’s much younger love Anna (Juliette Binoche). Though she is very young, Anna makes it clear that Marc is the only love she has ever known until Alex comes along and upsets their insular little world. Marc has recently become distant following the death of Alex’s father as he believes his rival, an old woman only referred to as The American, was behind the death and is plotting his murder as well if he can’t pull off the virus heist.

Marc’s growing emotional distance and Alex’s insistent romancing are the forces at war for much of the film’s second act which features a 30 minute scene in which Alex and Anna talk and bond and flirt and warn each other of the potential downfalls of a relationship between them. Anna maintains that she loves Marc, despite his age and growing coldness toward her. Alex meanwhile is insistent on his feelings and the scene culminates with a glorious expression of Alex’s newfound love, a street dance/run set to David Bowie’s Modern Love.

The dance/run is a thrilling moment captured with glorious camerawork and lit beautifully by the streetlights of an empty Paris street. Director Leos Carax has a wonderful eye for visuals and much of the fun of Mauvais Sang comes from the inventive ways Carax films the seemingly mundane, day to day activities of our criminal heroes. A long shot of Binoche shaking out her short hair after a night sleeping at a dingy hotel is framed beautifully with Alex watching her through a doorway, Anna with her back to him, her bright blue robe glowing, framed by sunlight coming in from a window.

It’s such a minor thing but it’s gorgeous and eye-catching and you can’t help but be struck by Carax’s wonderful palette and tremendously detailed eye. In fact, Mauvais Sang is such a beautiful film that it makes you not care in the least about the heist that would be the focus of a simpler movie. The heist to grab the valuable virus culture is tossed off with a quick series of scenes that have a unique humor and pacing to them. They end with an unexpected laugh followed by a jarring yet oddly comic death.

As I said though, the heist plot is not the point of Mauvais Sang as it might be in any other movie with a heist in it. Walter Goodman, a critic for the New York Times at the time the film played at the 1987 New York Film Festival, intriguingly pointed out that the heist and much of the action of Mauvais Sang plays like a parody of the kind of Hollywood noir movies that influenced so much of the early French New Wave. Interestingly, the same critic also mentioned that director Leos Carax was seen by many in 1987 as the ‘natural heir to Jean-Luc Godard.’

That both of those statements are true of Mauvais Sang should tell you how remarkable Mauvais Sang truly is. Mauvais Sang is not a movie for all audiences, but if you like a dazzlingly visual movie and an esoteric satire on classic movie tropes, then this movie is truly for you. It’s a shame that Mauvais Sang has been so lost to history. The film was out of print from 1988 until 2013 when it was restored and finally given a DVD release. I got a copy via Netflix’s DVD service and I highly recommend you do the same if you can’t find it in a more convenient streaming format.

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About the author

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. I am a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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