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With: Guillaume Depardieu, Yekaterina Golubeva, Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Chuillot, Laurent Lucas, Patachou, Petruta Catana, Mihaella Silaghi, Sharunas Bartas, Samuel Dupuy
Written by: Leos Carax, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Lauren Sedofsky, based on a novel by Herman Melville
Directed by: Leos Carax
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 134
Date: 05/12/1999

Pola X (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pierre and His Women

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Pola X is the latest film by French genius Leos Carax, a most complicated and difficult filmmaker who, as far as I see it, exists in the wrong time period. Carax should have been making films back in the silent days, when his wild, mad images would have been at home with the dramatic clunking of tinny pianos. Or at least he should have made films in the 1960's when college students were interested in seeing difficult films and struggling to find their essence in late night coffeehouse sessions.

Now silent films are seen as relics and college students spend their money on movies like Road Trip and a film like Pola X goes mostly unseen. That's too bad, because I think, in the long run, it will stand up as one of the most outstanding and memorable films of the year.

Like many distinguished filmmakers before him, Leos Carax began writing film criticism for the seminal French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. When he made his feature film debut in 1983 with Boy Meets Girl, he was hailed as a boy genius. However, like another boy genius, Orson Welles, he has had nothing but trouble since. His follow-up Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) gained a small following, but was not a hit. His expensive masterpiece, The Lovers on the Bridge, took eight years to open in the United States--as was dumped quietly by Miramax with no advertising. Pola X was also a flop, but this time it has a more daring distributor, Winstar, and we're getting to see it only a year after its French opening.

After a recent screening of Pola X, many of my colleagues declared the film "pretentious", an easy way to dismiss a difficult film. They tried and failed to make sense of out some of Carax' plot issues. And indeed the film does ask us to make more than a few leaps of faith plotwise. (The Lovers on the Bridge is much more streamlined and is a better movie for it.) But plot is not Carax' concern and never has been. Like many great filmmakers of the past, he is more concerned with emotion, poetry, power, madness, love, and imagery.

The title "Pola X" is an anagram for Herman Melville's novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (which translates to Pierre, ou Les Ambiguities in French). And the "X" is the Roman numeral for the tenth draft of the script. It takes the novel as its source, but like all good adaptations, it travels off on its own. Giullaume Depardieu (Gerard's son) stars as Pierre, the Melville-like writer, who lives happily in a French villa with his beautiful mother (Catherine Deneuve), whom he calls "sister." At the same time, he's happily engaged to a beautiful young thing, Lucie (Delphine Chuillot), who is not terribly unlike his mother. When he discovers that he has a half-sister, Isabelle (Katerina Golubeva), who has been living as a vagabond, he indulges in his incestuous longings full-swing and runs away with her to the big city. (She brings along two companions, a mother and a daughter--presumably fellow vagabonds.)

Carax gives the material a straightforward treatment with no commentary or irony. He's interested only in getting at Pierre's emotions, which he does. In the beginning, Pierre is good-looking and clean-cut. When Pierre reaches the city, his personality changes. His hair and beard grow out and become greasy and tangled. He begins scribbling his new novel with a squeaky red pen while the rain hammers wildly against his window. He injures his leg and lurches madly about on a cane. All this while he stays in a giant factory full of industrial musicians who bang on steel drums and pipes, grind at big wheels (causing sparks to fly everywhere), and augment it with screeching guitars and violins.

Isabelle is given equal weight. Her introduction takes place in severely darkened woods, with her explaining her vagabond past in broken, singsongy language, as she trudges past black trees laden with twisted branches. When their forbidden and inevitable love scene arrives, it is taken slowly and closely so that we can feel the full range of the passion and the danger (whereas an earlier love scene with Pierre and his fiancee was more playful and teasing).

Carax belongs to a small class of filmmakers that includes, at least, Welles and Erich von Stroheim; the ones who were not appreciated in their own times and who seemed, in fact, to be cursed. But he also belongs with Werner Herzog, Federico Fellini, and maybe Bertolucci and Coppola during their early periods. He's a visionary unafraid of the consequences of filming his wildest imaginations. I'm not talking a movie that's simply big and overwhelming like Titanic. I'm talking about the real thing.

(NOTE: Pola X is traveling around the country with his three other films, The Lovers on the Bridge, Boy Meets Girl, and Bad Blood.)

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