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‘It’s Not Me’ Review: Leos Carax’s Personal Manifesto

‘It’s Not Me’ Review: Leos Carax’s Personal Manifesto

After Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax is probably the French filmmaker most associated with the term enfant terrible. In some ways, he’s been even more terrible than Godard ever was, adopting a pseudonym (he was born Alex Dupont) as a teenager and bursting onto the scene at age 24 with Boy Meets Girl — Godard made Breathless when he was 30 — which immediately turned him into a major young auteur to be reckoned with.

He followed that up with the powerful, AIDS-inspired Mauvais Sang, and then made The Lovers on the Bridge, a film infamous for being a French Heaven’s Gate that went way over budget and flopped (it’s still a fantastic movie). After that Carax disappeared for a while, then reemerged to make a few shorts, compose pop songs and shoot a new feature every decade, the last one being the Adam Driver-Marion Cotillard starrer, Annette.

It’s Not Me

The Bottom Line

A short and dense film autobiography suited for the auteur’s fans.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Première)
Cast: Denis Lavant, Nastya Golubeva Carax, Anna-Isabel Siefken, Bianca Maddaluno, Kateryna Yuspina, Loreta Juodkaite, Peter Anevskii
Director, screenwriter, editor: Leos Carax

40 minutes

His latest work, the medium-length, autobiographical collage It’s Not Me (C’est pas moi), is both that of an enfant terrible and a true-blooded Godard disciple. It mimics, or pays homage to, the late Franco-Swiss director’s montage films like Histoire(s) du cinéma and The Image Book, using the same colorful on-screen titles that JLG once used to comment on footage both old and new.

That footage was assembled by Carax for an exhibition meant to happen at the Pompidou Center a few years ago, but still yet to take place. (Back in 2006, Godard was asked to do his own show at the same museum, then abandoned it due to “artistic, financial and technical difficulties,” only to replace it several months later with what was best described as a “non-exhibition.)

In preparation for the show, the organizers ask Carax a simple question: Who are you? The answer, according to It’s Not Me, it that he’s everything from silent movies to Hollywood Golden Age classics to scenes from his own work. He’s also the music of Nina Simone and David Bowie and The Fall, as well as Ravel and Beethoven. He’s Monsieur Merde (Mister Shit), a raving alter-ego played by Denis Lavant, who’s starred in nearly all of his films. And he’s above all a person who defines himself through the cinema, whether it’s the movies he loves or those he’s made throughout his turbulent career.

People unfamiliar with Carax’s oeuvre will likely be lost here, while fans and cinephiles will find a hearty meal to feast on. It’s Not Me is chock-full of references and influences, from F.W. Murnau to Jean Vigo to Godard himself, whose trembling voice is heard on a voice message he once left the director.

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There are also scenes featuring Carax’s real family, including his daughter, the actress Nastya Golubeva Carax, whom we see skipping along the Seine in old cell phone footage, then marvelously playing piano in a scene illuminated by candles. The auteur himself appears a few times as well: at the very start, where he’s lying on something like his deathbed, and later walking through the Buttes-Chaumont park accompanied by Monsieur Merde, who gleefully runs down a hill and defecates in a bush.

The film jumps around so quickly that it’s sometimes hard to follow the director’s lead. At other moments Carax more succinctly expresses his views, such as in a rapid-fire montage of world leaders that groups together Putin, Trump, Kim Jong-il and Benjamin Netanyahu. Another scene provides a brief history of Roman Polanski’s tumultuous and controversial life, in what seems like a plea for his defense.

While Carax’s movies have never been overtly political or historical, this one makes several references to Hitler and the Nazis. In one sequence, the director cuts in footage of Isadore Greenbaum, the Jewish plumber who tried to interrupt a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1939. In a later scene staged by Carax — and shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, the DP of Holy Motors — a mother sits beside her children in bed, eerily reading a bedtime story that describes the Final Solution.

Again, it’s a hearty meal, and also a condensed one at only 40 minutes. The auteur seems to be squeezing everything he can into a personal manifesto in which cinema, history and real life become interchangeable, and in which he tries to situate his work within film’s larger trajectory. The most telling evidence of this is a sequence which cuts from Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering photos of a horse in movement to a tracking shot of Lavant gloriously running and dancing down a Paris street in Mauvais Sang.

At such moments, it’s clear that Carax has not only reserved his own place in cinema’s trajectory, but that his films remain instantly recognizable through their romantic exuberance and visual splendor, their dark humor and existential gloom. These traits may not describe who Carax is or wants to be — if one is to believe that his latest movie is not, in fact, him (c’est pas moi). But they’re what we know and love about a great filmmaker, and still very much an enfant terrible at age 63, who’s always put the whole of himself into his work.

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