“The return of phantoms, of impossible beings,” is how actress Eva Mendes describes Leos Carax’s work during her appearance in “Mr. X,” a reverent tribute to the French auteur that makes him out to be something of an impossible phantom himself. Tessa-Louise Salome’s handsome, appropriately spidery doc draws on interviews with a host of Carax’s collaborators and admirers in an attempt to define the soaring significance of his short filmography — but with Mr. X naturally absent from his own party, any answers remain elusive. Alluring if not especially illuminating, this presently brief pic (presented in Sundance as a work in progress) serves as a tasty primer for audiences who only got wise to Carax with his 2012 comeback feature, “Holy Motors.” Festival programmers will flock, though it’s a niche item from a distribution standpoint.
Salome, who previously directed a 45-minute making-of featurette for “Holy Motors,” was a mere kindergartener when Carax unleashed his debut feature, “Boy Meets Girl,” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, so it figures that she should take a somewhat awed, hat-in-hand approach to this project, her own freshman effort. Those after extensive, argumentative critical engagement with Carax’s far-from-unifying body of work are advised to look elsewhere: From longtime leading man Denis Lavant to New Yorker critic Richard Brody to Cannes chief Gilles Jacob, everyone here is in a strictly celebratory mood. Jacob goes so far as to suggest that Carax’s oeuvre is beyond analysis: “His films make no sense in theory,” he says, and means that wholly as a compliment.
That said, “Mr. X” offers a sufficiently seductive sampling of le cinema du Carax to make non-converts (in the unlikely event that there are any in the audience) understand why it inspires such depth of feeling. Opening with haunting footage from the abandoned department store that houses the emotional crescendo of “Motors,” Salome’s canny clip selections underline the director’s signature blend of the eerie, the erotic and the ecstatic; any commentary atop them can feel superfluous.
After some general rhapsodizing, Salome segues to a film-by-film discussion, lingering understandably on “The Lovers on the Bridge,” his wildly imagined (and wildly over-budgeted) 1991 Parisian romance. The film’s infamously problematic production and heated reception long ago entered the realm of cinematic lore, and patently changed the course of Carax’s career — though Brody’s argument for it as a reformed failure in the vein of Elaine May’s “Ishtar” or Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” doesn’t feel entirely apt. Somewhat shortchanged by comparison is Carax’s marvelous 1999 folly, “Pola X” — perhaps because it’s the director’s only feature not to star Lavant, who is Salome’s most generous and engaging interviewee. Indeed, Carax’s storied collaboration with Lavant (“a technician of the body,” as astutely observed by “Holy Motors” d.p. Caroline Champetier) is a dominant arc of the doc, with many commenters noting their physical and psychological compatibility.
Talking heads represent a healthy balance of celebrity and cinephilia: It says much about Carax’s unique directorial brand that Kylie Minogue (whose palpable pride in “Holy Motors” is most endearing) and Kent Jones can be roped in to talk him up with equal enthusiasm. Though Carax himself is not on hand, Salome and fellow editors Laureline Attali and Gabriel Humeau deftly weave in enough archive interview footage that he at least feels spiritually present. Also available only in archival form is his former leading lady and ex-g.f. Juliette Binoche — the star’s absence is unsurprising, though the extended contribution of her sister Marion Stalens (a set photographer on Carax’s films) feels like odd compensation.
With the interview segments elegantly shot by Kaname Onoyama, often through a gauze of smoke and shadow, “Mr. X” feels happily consistent with — but not overly derivative of — the work of its subject. Salome is set to add more footage, having completed this version in time for Sundance and Rotterdam premiere dates, but the length and scope of the project as it stands aren’t especially lacking.