In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
In the real world, making an entrance is something that you have limited control over. The people you’re hoping to wow may not be where you expected them to be; even worse, they may not see what you wanted them to see. In a movie, however, a director can painstakingly craft our initial view of a character, creating the precise impression that he or she desires. Often, this involves strategically hiding the actor at first, the better to whet our appetites. One option is simple, sustained absence—let others talk the character up for a while, then engineer an abrupt, striking introduction. (Rita Hayworth hair-tossing her way into the frame in Gilda qualifies; so does the moment in The Third Man when a beam of light cast from a window across the street illuminates Orson Welles, who’d been hiding in the shadows.) Another tried-and-true technique is the slow reveal: shooting everything except the actor’s face. Think Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or—for the super-clichéd version—just about any initial shot of a character that starts at the person’s shoes and then slowly tilts its way up.
That’s already three iconic intros that I could easily write about at length (and perhaps will someday). Instead, I’d like to show you another of my all-time favorites, one that you might never have seen. Mauvais Sang (translation: Bad Blood, though it’s generally known by its French title in the U.S.; it’s also screened as The Night Is Young) was the second feature written and directed by Leos Carax, back in 1986. It stars Carax’s favorite actor, Denis Lavant, opposite then-rising star Juliette Binoche—the two would be paired again in his subsequent feature, The Lovers On The Bridge (1991)—and Mauvais Sang has their characters, Alex and Anna, first meet on a city bus. Well, they don’t meet, exactly. Alex just happens to see Anna on the bus one night. We, however, only sort of see Anna, as Carax opts to create a sense of tantalizing mystery by obscuring her as much as possible. To see what can be accomplished via music, lighting, and a series of distorted reflections, take a look at the clip below, which runs only about two minutes. That’s all it takes to signify that Alex’s world has been forever changed.
In a way, Carax’s strategy here is perverse. It’s not hard to understand why Alex’s response, when he first lays eyes on Binoche (who was all of 22 at the time, and had just broken into films the year before), calls to mind a wolf with its eyes boinging out of its head. One could argue that part of the fun, when it comes to this sort of delayed character introduction, is waiting to see whether the actor, when revealed, can possibly live up to the breathless hype. But at this point in the film, Alex has just broken up with his girlfriend, who’s played by Julie Delpy, who was then 17. Carax clearly wants to convey something much more powerful than just beauty. Shoot any actor, male or female, in this way, and the filmmaking alone will achieve the goal, which is simply to demonstrate that Alex, for whatever possibly idiosyncratic reason, is mesmerized by the sight of this person. And as yet, we know literally nothing about Anna as a person. That comes later.
The first indication that something extraordinary has happened is the sudden appearance on the soundtrack of Variation 8 from Benjamin Britten’s Variations On A Theme From Frank Bridge. Ironically, this particular variation is titled “Funeral March,” though it seems here to imply a life suddenly beginning. (Then again, it could be foreshadowing, given what happens later; to say more would get into spoilers.) The music actually starts, if you look closely, a second or so before Alex’s face registers astonishment, as it’s heralding Anna’s imminent approach. For a remarkably long time—at least in terms of film grammar—we don’t know what Alex has seen. His face slowly moves from right to left, and only toward the end does the shadowy form of a person—gender unknown; it’s way too dark—cross the frame, providing us with a reference point. Only when Carax cuts to a shot of Anna from behind do we see that it’s a woman. She then sits down facing Alex…but the shot has been exactingly blocked and lit to keep her face from being seen. In what seems like a deliberate joke, a brightly lit door sign that reads “PRESS TO OPEN” blocks our view after she’s seated. Only her hair, her neck, and her left shoulder are visible.
Britten’s music abruptly fades away at this point, leaving only the ambient noises of the bus rumbling along. And now Alex, who’s surrounded by other standing passengers—the bus is quite crowded—starts to be slightly visually obscured himself, by way of indicating that his own direct line of sight to Anna is poor. In an effort to catch another glimpse of her, he starts seeking out her reflection in the bus’ mirrors and windows. These shots are distinct enough for viewers who know Binoche to recognize that it’s her, but Anna is always out of focus or distorted or both. In one shot, which appears to be an overhead reflection, she seems to briefly look right at the camera, or at Alex if we assume that the camera represents his point of view. Her expression doesn’t change, however—if she does see Alex, she doesn’t experience the epiphany that he did. She just looks vaguely tired. Editor Nelly Quettier’s cross-cutting between Alex and Anna throughout this sequence is masterful; she tends to cut on quick intervals of darkness, as light sources from out on the street emerge and vanish. (Quettier regularly works with both Carax and with Claire Denis; she’s fantastic. I should also note that Mauvais Sang‘s cinematographer is Jean-Yves Escoffier, who’d later shoot such Hollywood films as Good Will Hunting and Rounders, and who died of heart failure in 2003.) There’s even a shot so quick that Anna, her darkness-enshrouded face looming forward as the bus lurches, barely gets into bad focus before the film cuts back to Alex, likewise mostly in shadow.
After a couple more extremely distorted reflections, the bus stops and Alex gets off. Binoche has a window seat, and is clearly visible, but with her right hand held to her face (a movement that begins in the final brief reflection; everything here has been carefully thought out). He then walks past her and out of frame—but when the light changes, his own distorted reflection appears superimposed on Anna’s body. We also get both of their reflections, one right after the other, in the bus door as it closes. And then the bus drives away and the shot instantly fades to black. In Citizen Kane, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) tells the reporter about a woman he saw only once, for a fleeting instant, but has thought about at least once a month for the past 40 years. That’s not the situation here—by sheer coincidence, Anna will turn out to be the moll of a gangster for whom Alex is working—but it easily could have been. Even if he never saw Anna again, Alex would clearly remember this moment forever. I’m not ever likely to forget it myself.