For me the most interesting “ten best” list included in the January-February 2009 issue of Film Comment is the dozen titles offered by my favorite Japanese film critic, Shigehiko Hasumi. And what’s especially interesting about his list is the inclusion of Leos Carax’s Merde – the middle episode in the three-part feature Tokyo! (2008), flanked by contributions from Michel Gondry and Joon-ho Bong. Decidedly over-the-top in both theme and style as well as execution, and starring former circus acrobat Denis Lavant, who also plays the lead role in Carax’s first three features — an actor who’s surely even more important to this filmmaker’s work than Jean-Pierre Léaud was to the early features of Truffaut — Merde is a provocation and something of an anomaly, even for someone as eclectic as Carax. (It’s also his first film of any length since his 1999 Pola X, his only major film without Lavant.)
Clearly inspired, at least in its opening stretches, by Jean-Louis Barrault in Jean Renoir’s odd Jekyll-and-Hyde adaptation, Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (1961) [see below], Lavant plays a monster who emerges from the Tokyo sewers to wreak random and violent havoc on Tokyo pedestrians until he gets brought to trial, where he gets defended by an equally strident French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer, in a performance that’s almost as extravagant as Lavant’s).
Perhaps the most striking thing about this crazy shocker is how politically incorrect it is in its seeming anti-Japanese (and anti-French) caricatures; the rude title of Carax is entirely appropriate. I’m still figuring out what Carax had in mind when he made it, but the characters, behaviors, and images are indelible. [1/22/09]