BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: lovers on the run.

THE Film Society is screening a number of lesser-seen films by well-known French artists, and it’s a good chance to see where some of these arthouse favourites either came from, or went to in their work. Leos Carax gained some arthouse fame for his 90s films, the hit Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and the Melville adaptation Pola X, but also started off his film life as a critic. And the film critic background shows, as Mauvais Sang (aka The Night Is Young) frolicks in homages a-plenty.

Alex (Denis Lavant – for those not familiar with his film roles in Beau Travail and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, he’s also that guy in the brilliant UNKLE music video for ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’) is a petty criminal, whose father has just committed suicide. His father’s associates owe a lot of money to some American/Russian gangsters, and need Alex’s fast fingers to help out in a crazy heist which would help see the gansters off. Alex also leaves his girlfriend (a very young Julie Delpy) and has a long attempted fling with one of the associate’s (Michel Piccoli) younger lover Anna (Juliette Binoche). The plot incorporates noir, gangster, heist, even sci-fi into one, well, art-film.

The film’s centrepiece is the attempted seduction of Anna by Alex. And while it might seem to serve no narrative purpose (it doesn’t really function in terms of the rather ridiculous heist narrative), it’s a straight reference to Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. Binoche herself was partly discovered by Godard, and A Bout de Souffle features a lengthy narrative digression of attempted seduction. And while that film wore its narrative ridiculousness in a light and frothy manner, Mauvais Sang almost buries its contrivances underneath noirish shadows and white noise. Another key reference point for the film’s editing and spatial construction is French master Robert Bresson. The cutting features a similar Bressonian restraint – montages of body parts or close-ups creates a kinetic charge where the audience has to fill in the gaps themselves. Carax films the violence much like the way Bresson films violence (e.g. in L’Argent or Lancelot du Lac) with rapid, sudden bursts. (Also I might have misheard, but was the policemen who was killed called Mouchette?) German expressionism, Cocteau, Melville and 40s Hollywood noir all get thrown into the mix as well – giving the film a compelling energy.

However, there were aspects which didn’t work so well. The acting was a little too stagey and unconvincing (Binoche in particular was act-ing like a first year theatre student), and the self-consciousness which served Godard so well didn’t translate so well in the more dark territory. Piccoli, the great actor, was largely wasted. Alex’s run through the streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”, which was meant to feel transcendent and linked to the film’s final image, felt like it belonged more in Flashdance. The narrative is purposefully ludicrous, occasionally cod-poetic, and those who don’t pick up on the references might feel a little bit lost. Or even worse, think that the film was over-the-top-cheesy, and that the narrative was too unformed. That said, if you were able to follow Carax’s trajectory, get drawn into his unashamed dark references to unrequited love and fatalistic anti-heroism, the film carries an oblique charge.