[Written for Film.com]
Herman Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, was widely reviled when it was published, just as Leos Carax’s film of Pierre has been generally maligned. Melville’s book came along in the wide wake of a little thing called Moby-Dick, and even if it had not, it’s a very strange novel—seemingly a put-on of a certain kind of fruity romantic tale, but stretched past the point of parody. It’s weird, but interesting-weird.
Carax’s Pola X is also interesting-weird. It, too, is a follow-up to a huge, oversized, mad opus, but Carax’s white whale was Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, a magnificent folly that took its director nearly a decade to recover from. The title is an obscure joke; Pola is shorthand for Pierre, ou les ambiguities, the French title of the novel, and the X is for Carax’s tenth draft of the script. The plot remains from Melville: Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu), a young writer, drops out of his privileged life after he discovers the existence of an exotic half-sister (Yekaterina Golubyova)—she is from Yugoslavia, in the Carax version. Pierre moves to the poverty of bohemia, engages in an incestuous amour with his sister, and works on a truth-telling novel.
The early sequences, a languid life of sunshine and pretty shirts, are luscious. Catherine Deneuve plays Pierre’s mother, with whom he shares a golden aura and a peculiarly close relationship (they lounge on a bed together and call each other brother and sister). Throughout the film, Carax creates a sense of the real and the not-real; he repeatedly jars you with excess or artificiality—Deneuve’s stylized motorcycle ride being one example. The critics who hate Pola X seem to take it straight, in which case the film would indeed be pretentious, but to my eyes Carax views Pierre’s dissolution with an acidic sense of humor.
Based on his previous movies, Carax is certainly in thrall to the bohemian rhapsody of art, squalor, and love in extremis. But Pola X suggests a more mature distancing from the romantic dreams of youth (Carax has said he fell in love with the novel as a teenager), as though Carax has wised up about this stuff. Yet there is no retreat into irony. The explicit sex scene between Depardieu and Golubyova takes care of that, as Carax explores just how real a movie can get. (“Explicit” is used here in its proper sense, not the casual way people refer to soft-core scenes as explicit sex.)
Sometimes you like or dislike a movie not because it makes sense, or succeeds in fulfilling the conventional expectations of a film, but simply because, moment for moment, the movie holds you. I’m not sure how elaborately I could defend Pola X, but I loved watching it. Carax is able to sculpt his shots into passionately rendered artworks, and he can create crazy, unexpected worlds within the film, such as the warehouse-y building in which the starving artists create musical noise with a collection of metallic instruments. If Pola X is a failure, it is a more stimulating failure than most successful films.