Director Leos Carax is known for his reluctance to give interviews. He refused to give any at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago despite the buzz surrounding his new film, which came 13 years after his previous feature. So it was a surprise to find a cheerful, smiling Carax happy to sit for a talk on the balcony of his hotel room during a visit to Israel this month.
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The interview took place in the evening. Carax wore his trademark sunglasses, a brown leather jacket and matching hat, under which unkempt gray hair poked out. The wunderkind of French cinema has grown up — he’s 53 — but has remained unique. He has only made five films in 30 years – preserving not only his passion for cinema but also the curiosity surrounding him and his work.
Carax, who was in Israel as a guest of the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, was born in 1960 as Alex Christophe Dupont. He later took the name Carax, combining Alex and Oscar — the name of the protagonist in most of his films.
He began his career by making a few short films and writing reviews. When he was 24 he released his first full-length feature, “Boy Meets Girl,” in which a young filmmaker falls in love with a young suicidal woman.
The film was screened at Cannes and made Carax a rising star in French cinema. The movie also marked the beginning of his long-time cooperation with actor Denis Lavant, cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier and producer Alain Dahan.
His next two films, “The Night is Young” (1986) and “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1991), which featured Lavant and Carax’s then girlfriend, Juliette Binoche, cemented Carax as a leading French director. It took him eight years to get his next film in the can — the experimental “Pola X.”
This effort wasn’t received as well. It then took him 13 years to release “Holy Motors,” which also starred Lavant. During this period, Carax directed a few short films; none of his features got off the ground. The main reason, he says, is his difficulty casting.
“To make a film I need a few people. I need two, three people who I trust. I didn’t always have these people. So it’s not so much money – I mean, of course it’s money, you’ve got to find money to fund films,” he says.
“But for me the hardest part is finding people. If I don’t feel I have two, three people who I really trust, I won’t make the film. For years I tried to make a film between Russia and America called ‘Scars’ and I never found the guy and the girl; I found plenty of money. I didn’t find the people. So that’s a problem.”
What was “Scars” supposed to be about?
“It was kind of a tale, not a fairy tale, but it was a young boy solider, a Russian soldier, who meets a woman who has a little daughter. They were the three main characters, and there was the devil in the story too. It’s a story with a devil ....
“Kind of a Faustian story. We had found quite a bit of money, but I never found this couple, this main couple. But of course if you don’t find, it means something’s wrong with the project if it seems impossible to find people.”
Two years ago, “Holy Motors” received thunderous applause at Cannes, but also some boos. The film was very positively reviewed but didn’t win any prizes at Cannes. Like his previous film, this one was experimental and didn’t have much of a plot. But it did have plenty of mesmerizing scenes.
“The film started, really, with the rage of not being able to make films. I’d been trying to make films, this Russian film, American film, other films and I was getting crazy. So I thought what could I do, to be sure to make a film this year. And I thought, to make a film quick, it’s gotta be cheap so you don’t lose time looking for money. It has to be in Paris because I know Paris,” Carax says.
“[It has to be] with this actor, Denis Lavant, because I can go faster with him and I can ask him anything. He’s the only one I know that I can ask anything from. And it has to be shot in digital because it’s both cheaper, and when I shoot in digital I don’t watch what I shoot. I don’t like to watch it, so I can go faster.”
Saved by cinema
His films, he says, always begin with a series of unusual images.
“I have this limousine thing in my head. I thought it was very interesting. First of all … they’re so silly, nobody buys them, you rent them. You know, you rent them for a few hours to pretend you’re famous or because you’re famous to play a game, because it’s not real life. And the way they look, and they look both kind of erotic and morbid.
“People in my neighborhood in Paris, Chinese people, use them to get married. I see them all the time, Chinese people getting married. But in a way, they look more like a funeral thing to me. So I imagine these people who rent them pretend they are someone else, to pretend they are happy to get married, to pretend they are famous or rich — all these games we play.”
You began making films in your 20s and now you’re in your 50s. Do you feel as if your films have changed?
“The three first films I made in the ‘80s, they belong together in a way, especially the two first ones, because I was really discovering cinema the same time I was making films. So they were films but also love letters to cinema, saying thank you, thank you, you saved me. After my second film I thought I had paid my debts to cinema, I can go my own way ....
“I’ve never had box office success, but my films travel. They’ve been shown on DVDs or whatever, they have perspective. So I have traveled with the films, all over the world. And I find that the further I go from home, the more interesting it is for me to talk or to show to people. That’s something I discovered.”
After you finish working on a film, how do you feel about it?
“Usually I feel okay until it’s finished, it’s shown to people, it’s out. And usually not so good after that. [Laughs.] The disappointment always – I think it’s also physical, the exhaustion, disappointment. I’m better now. When I was younger, I finished a film, and I was sick for years. Now I’m okay.”
A year and a half ago, you said you wanted to make a film about superpowers.
“Oh yes, superpowers. Yes, I wanted to, but I never could find a good superpower. When I was a kid, I loved superheroes … as every kid does. But it’s very difficult because all they do these superheroes is fly and to be strong. That’s it. That’s not very interesting.
“Now I’m trying to make something else; I’m trying to make a musical because I wanted to be in music. I didn’t want to be in cinema. I wanted to have a life in music. But I was not gifted. I wanted music but music didn’t want me, so then I just considered I was lucky to find cinema.”