An overripe 19th-century melodrama played out in 20th-century settings, “Pola X” looks set to perpetuate the stormy critical and commercial rep of its director, French iconoclast Leos Carax, who’s making his first feature in seven years. Though nowhere near as flamboyant or spendthrift as his big-budget flop “Lovers on the Bridge” (1992), “Pola” is in many ways (especially thematically) the most extreme demonstration so far of his recurring motifs: lovers on the run from a hostile society, purity in poverty and the need for the true spiritual artist to suffer. Whether an audience exists for such stylized high auteurism beyond fests and small arthouse cliques remains extremely doubtful, even in his native France. (In the U.S., Miramax only now is giving “Lovers” a theatrical release.”)
By choosing the relatively unknown 1852 Herman Melville novel “Pierre, or, the Ambiguities,” written in an artistic frenzy just after “Moby Dick,” Carax has taken on a ready package of many of the themes that have run through his three prior movies, “Boy Meets Girl,” “Mauvais Sang” and “Lovers.” Helmer adheres fairly closely to the broad structure of Melville’s novel but transfers the action to the present day while retaining the original’s high romantic tone and extreme emotions.
The result is an often intriguing, sometimes hypnotic work, but one that quickly starts to unravel in the final hour as it becomes clear there’s not much beneath the emperor’s clothes. Carax clearly has a vision of life he wishes to share, but it’s one for which an increasingly few number of moviegoers will want to pony up time or money, especially when nothing new is being brought to the table.
The opening couple of reels are promising, setting up the extremes of society through which our hero, Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu), will travel, with extreme images of war and bombing, set to Scott Walker’s hard rock music; and of moneyed , pastoral repose, set to more classical strains.
Pierre is the ultimate high-bourgeois character, living with his chic, touchy-feely mom, Marie (Catherine Deneuve), in rural luxury; enjoying the fruits of success of a novel he’s penned under a pseudonym, Aladin; engaged to a beautiful, supportive woman, Lucie (Delphine Chuillot); and writing his next masterpiece on his computer between sunny days with mom and his fiancee. The only blots on his life are recurrent troubling dreams and an almost feral, longhaired woman who seems to be following him.
When visiting his cousin Thibault (Laurent Lucas), with whom he and Lucie used to form a close trio, he spies the woman (Katerina Golubeva) in the street and gives chase only to lose her. Later, motoring on his bike to visit Lucie, he encounters the woman again at night in the woods, where, in a long series of reverse tracking shots, she blurts out her whole story to Pierre, starting with the words, “You are not an only child. Believe me. I am your sister, Isabelle.”
It’s at this point, some 30 minutes in, that the film moves up several stylistic gears. Till then, Carax’s approach has been immaculately controlled on every level — emotionally, visually and with a period flavor to the dialogue (mother and son address each other as “my brother” and “my sister,” as if in a historical meller) — frequently to seductive effect.
But with the entrance of thesp Golubeva, speaking Slavic-accented, broken French and emoting passions on a grand scale, the pic loses any connection with present-day reality and spins off into a totally fabricated universe in which the audience is expected to take the characters’ emotions at face value rather than become involved on a more complex level.
Isabelle is an itinerant remnant of some Central European war, a refugee without a family or social background, a complete challenge to which everything Pierre represents. Pierre becomes enthralled to the purity of her feelings, and their intensity, and joins her and her two young female companions on a journey to Paris, where he throws off his past life, lives in grungy surroundings and dedicates himself to penning a “real” novel, one that will show “the truth.”
Underneath Carax’s stylistic trademarks — passionless delivery of emotive dialogue, occasional technical tours de force, disconcerting inserts (the sudden appearance of a heavy industrial rock orchestra in the giant warehouse where he lives) — there’s a simple story: Bourgeois kid throws off the trappings of his empty life to become a real artist. As the pic progresses and becomes increasingly melodramatic for its own sake, you realize that Carax doesn’t have much more to say.
In the early going, Deneuve brings the kind of effortless class to the picture that becomes more lacking in the later stages; vet thesp even carries off a topless bathing scene with style. Golubeva remains a cipher to the end, Depardieu (like Carax’s previous male heroes) goes through his paces but stays emotionally remote, and only Chuillot, as his first love, brings anything to her character that’s accessible for the viewer.
Pic is not especially luxurious in look and has a slight graininess that works against the evident care taken in other departments, such as production design, editing and music — the last swinging between Walker’s pounding rock and churning, classical excerpts. The running time is extremely leisurely considering the thinness of content.
For the record, the pic’s title, which is meaningless, is an acronym from the French title of Melville’s novel, “Pierre, ou, les Ambiguites.” One element of the otherwise sexually conservative movie, certain to be problematic in certain territories: an explicit scene shot in semidarkness of Pierre and Isabelle engaging in mutual oral sex.