Tokyo! Welcomes Back Léos Carax

Director Léos Carax.

Léos Carax played a Charlie Chaplin impersonator two years ago in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely—other than that, though, the idiosyncratic French director (best known for 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neut and often credited, along with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, with pioneering the cinema du look in the 1980s) hasn’t had his name attached to much since Pola X, the incest drama he made a decade ago with Catherine Deneuve and Guillaume Depardieu.

 Is he still “French cinema’s reigning mad romantic,” as the New York Times called him then?  Tokyo!—the three-pack of short films by Carax, Michel Gondry, and Joon-ho Bong (The Host) and set in the Japanese capital—will give Carax-deprived viewers a chance to decide. His contribution, “Merde,” focuses on a milky-eyed, red-bearded creature (Denis Lavant) that emerges from the sewers and starts tossing hand grenades around Tokyo. He’s “a sort of Godzilla who attacks the inhabitants of great cities-but a racist, fundamentalist Godzilla,” Carax explains.

It’s hard to avoid drawing a loose parallel here: Carax, too, has surfaced to throw a few bombs-starting with the title, which translates as “Shit.” “It’s about a regression, how people regress in times of fear,” he says. “It’s also a word I like in French. I tried to make a masterpiece of shit.” But he insists that, “the idea was not to provoke. It was to create this child monster and to confront him [with] this childish society. It’s Japan, but it could have been another modern society.” In fact, the original setting was Paris. But when Carax got an offer from the Tokyo! producers, he decided to take the idea out of his comfort zone. “I wasn’t able to make my own films, so I said yes to this proposal. I’d never shot on video, shot in another country, another language.”

 Another language, indeed: the film’s most startling invention is the mix of shrieks, squeaks and pantomime by which Lavant’s staggering, chain-smoking terrorist expresses himself.  Carax created it one word at a time. “When I needed a word, I invented it—sometimes from French or English or Russian, or a dictionary of African dialects.”

The film’s ending promises “Merde in USA” will be next, and Carax happily muses about a New York follow-up. “Maybe I’ll make Beauty and the Beast, and confront him with a woman. Maybe he’ll come out of the sewers here and walk onto a fashion shoot and kidnap Kate Moss.”


Tokyo! opens in New York today. For Darrell Hartman’s interview with Tokyo! short-film director Michel Gondry see here.