Mauvais Sang (1986): The inhumanly flexible, vaguely rat-faced thespian Denis Lavant is still obscure in America. That’s a shame: If anyone was tailor-made for the Internet age, it’s Lavant, crazy clips of whom ought to be fixtures of the web’s many time-suck sites. Lavant and expressionist filmmaker Leos Carax have one of the great director-star unions, including the new Holy Motors. In their first joint venture, Lavant plays a philosophical crook in love with Juliette Binoche. His passion manifests itself in a scene where, to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” he runs barreling down an empty city street at night, busting out flips. It’s the purest expression of joy I’ve seen on film. YouTube it, as with all of these.
The Lovers on the Bridge (1991): Carax cast Lavant and Binoche again for his tale of amour fou between the homeless. Of its many unusual qualities, the strangest is, of course, Lavant, a most feral romantic lead. He’s also a fire breather, yielding a few show-stopping demonstrations.
“Rabbit in Your Headlights” (1998): Noted filmmakers who aren’t Carax have been slow to use Lavant. So, kudos to director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), who cast him in his music video for U.N.K.L.E. (with Thom Yorke on vocals). Lavant plays a mysterious, crazy, hooded drifter casually strolling through a traffic tunnel. He’s repeatedly hit by cars, only to get up, again and again, until a stunning climax.
Beau Travail (1999): Claire Denis’ abstract goof on Billy Budd stars Lavant as the closeted sergeant, although he doesn’t really show off his stuff until the bizarre coda: In a mirrored room that’s blasting DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night,” Lavant cavorts insanely, flinging himself across the room and flopping about like a fish.
Mister Lonely (2007): Harmony Korine’s film about sad celebrity impersonators includes Lavant’s Charles Chaplin, who dresses like The Tramp but acts like Hitler.
Holy Motors (2012): Carax’s latest is his bugfuckiest, with Lavant as a shape-shifting being driven in a limo to different loopy episodes, including a reappearance of the leprechaun-like beastie he played in Carax’s Tokyo! short. It’s also his saddest. Lavant is tired. At 51, he only has so many absurdly acrobatic years left. But it’s not too late.