By Amanda McQueen, UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant
Denis Lavant is an incredibly physical actor. Though also known for his distinctive face - interesting, but not really classically handsome - Lavant has become associated with a markedly kinetic performance style. Slapstick, acrobatics, and dance are all within his wheelhouse, and Lavant has said that when approaching his roles, his body - not the text - is his first language. Taking inspiration from theater and street performing, where a particular intensity is needed to attract audiences, Lavant at times moves with an electrifying abandon that belies the control he is able to wield over his body. Those who work with Lavant - perhaps most notably director Leos Carax, who helped launch Lavant's career with Boy Meets Girl (1984) and who has featured the actor in most of his films - are often attracted to him because of his ability to shift from quiet to frenetic, from graceful to unrestrained. Carax, Lavant explains, "directs me more like a sculptor, physically."
Lavant's career is long and varied; though he describes himself as primarily a theater actor, he has done a great deal of work for film and television, appearing in shorts, features, and music videos. In 1998, for example, he starred in the award-winning video for "Rabbit in Your Headlights" from British electronic duo UNKLE (featuring vocals from Radiohead's Thom Yorke). The video relies primarily on Lavant's physicality; he stumbles erratically down a road, mumbling almost incoherently, and is repeatedly hit by passing cars. The payoff at the video's end, however, demonstrates just how powerful Lavant's body can be.
Some of Lavant's physical performances have become iconic. The pop culture website The Dissolve recently posted a list of "The Movies' 50 Greatest Pop Music Moments," and Lavant features twice. First, at #42, the celebrated final scene from Claire Denis' Beau Travail (1999), in which Lavant dances to Corona's "Rhythm of the Night." And then, at #41, is a scene from Carax's Mauvais Sang (1986), in which Lavant runs, leaps, and cartwheels down the street to David Bowie's "Modern Love."
In a 2008 interview, Lavant said: "Maybe I am more physical than the average [actor], but I admit it. It is part of my pleasure. I love dancing, I love all my body to play. For me, a role isn't just a face and a voice, and the great actors that I admire are those who use their body to give a shape to their character." By these criteria, surely Lavant himself will long be considered one of the greats.
Mauvais Sang screens at the Cinematheque this Saturday, October 11, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.