Above: Denis Levant is "Merde" in Leos Carax's segment of the city omnibus film, Tokyo.
Tucked in the middle of the surprisingly inspired omnibus Tokyo! is the first masterpiece of Cannes, Leos Carax' short feature Merde.
A sneering dark comedy pastiche combo of Godzilla and Oshima's Death by Hanging, it captures in wicked digital imagery (by the unbeatable Caroline Champetier) the emergence from the sewers of a hideous Denis Levant to wreck havoc on the unprepared Japanese city. Red-bearded like an ur-gaijin, wearing a leprechaun's garb and crawling up from the catacombs not unlike some silent serial super villain, he roars down the streets in a gregarious, brilliant verité sequence set to Ifukube Akira's killer score from Godzilla, stealing cigarettes, licking schoolgirls, and generally strutting with an anarchic frenzy
Logically, the next step is to grenade nighttime city crowds, and Levant's madman—who speaks a gibberish language that only an absurd Parisian defense attorney, himself having the same curled, monstrous nails, devilish beard and milky dead-eye, can understand—is soon captured and condemned to death. Living in the underground remains of Japan's Second World War detritus and eating only cash and imperial chrysanthemums, Levant's creature—"Merde"—is too insanely, enjoyable kooky to express any kind of simple allegory. (Arbitrary split screen—now three ways, now four!—and an endless, untranslated interrogation scene seem to underline a certain stunt-like quality to the film's exuberance and concept.) Instead we only see madness, Carax relishing an all-too-rare opportunity to make yet another unqualifiable, indescribable work of pure cinema, an ode to the monsters of the world.
Michel Gondry, with Interior Design, proves that rather than be all by his lonesome, with the help of a screenwriter he can reign in his meta-craftsman indulgence and just tell a story. Of course, we have yet to arrive at character—our heroine leaves her filmmaking boyfriend during the upheaval of the couple looking for an apartment and work in Tokyo but without any real reason for breaking the relationship—but the arc, from Fujitani Ayako's girl on the sidelines to girl turned into a piece of useful furniture, has a touch of tenderness and much energy, despite the lack of human logic.
Gondry, with much cleverness, makes us assume from the get-go that the filmmaking boyfriend is the protagonist, opening with the joke of having him narrate a post-apocalyptic future over images outside of the window of the couple's car, stuck in traffic on a rainy night. Is Gondry giving up the obsession with dreamer-filmmaker stand-ins? Probably not, but when Fujitani's frustration turns her into a wooden chair to be found on the streets, for the first time in a while we see not Gondry watching someone craft whimsy, but rather we see someone inadvertently craft themselves. Feeding a creative impulse inside an ordinary character and not a savant creator is the path that will lead Gondry back to the emotional and narrative splendor of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and his segment in Tokyo! is a very promising step in the right direction.
Two out of three isn't bad, but one must admit that Bong Joon-ho's Shaking Tokyo has none of the vigor of The Host or Memories of Murder. His enjoyable jerky tone in shorter form here turns into a torpid kind of whimsy—symmetrical interior decoration, push-button tattoos, slightly odd and dramatically convenient earthquakes—none of which carries much impact. And his Imamura-like preference for social losers turns downright quirky-cute with our hero being an agoraphobic shut-in.
As the shortest film of the trio, it gets more than a pass though: it's final image of the girl who brought our recluse out in the open is a doozy. Literally trembling during a quake which vibrates the glaring light, as if all the fear of leaving the house, facing the sun, and entering the crowd was manifesting itself in the on-fire form of this pretty girl, Bong embraces the latent whimsy of the short and for a few seconds goes all out. No explanation, just magic.