Pola X (1999, Leos Carax)

Not at all surprised when the end credits told me it’s based on a novel. The novel was Herman Melville’s follow-up to Moby Dick, which according to wikipedia was “a critical and financial disaster… universally condemned for both its morals and its style.” The movie plays like a piece of tragic literature without feeling uncomfortable in its present-day setting. I mean that as a compliment, but it also means the plot, as strange as it initially seems, has a feeling of inevitability. It opens on a rich couple, happy, alive and in love, so I know things won’t end well. Maybe it would be interesting to someday make a movie that opens on a loving couple who manage to stay that way.

Anonymously bestselling author Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu, star of Don’t Touch The Axe) is engaged to marry Lucie, but already a weird incestual vibe is creeping in when he calls his mom “sister” and gets all clingy around her. His best friend Thibault returns from travels, congratulates Pierre on his engagement to their mutual childhood friend Lucie, seems sincere about it. But Pierre is distracted by a stalker, and when he finally catches her, she claims to be his long-lost sister Isabelle, hidden away and raised in Bosnia. So Pierre visits some good places to die: the highway at night, a massive unstable rock, a waterfall, then tells his fiancee and mother that he’s moving to Paris by himself.

Pierre and mother:

Pierre tells Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva, sinister stalker in The Intruder): “for the world, you’ll be my wife,” even though nobody in Paris knows who he is so it shouldn’t matter. They immediately run into trouble on both sides of the law, Thibault throws him out, and newly-disillusioned Pierre is having trouble with his follow-up novel. His agent: “The need to spit the world’s sinister truth in its face is as old as the world itself.” Another woman and a little girl travel with them – I was never sure who they were, exactly, but the girl dies after being smacked in the head by a passer-by, and the couple moves again.

Now they’re in a warehouse run by a drums-and-feedback noise conductor and his all-black-clothed orchestra – just the kind of thing people assume goes on in Paris – and now their public/private roles seem reversed, as they sleep together when nobody is looking, but stay in separate beds. Back in the country, Pierre’s distraught mom (Catherine Deneuve, the same year she did Ruiz’s Time Regained) gets on his motorcycle and dies on the highway at night – so it beats the massive rock and the waterfall as the movie’s foreshadowed death monument. Lucie tracks Pierre down and stays with them (“we’ll say you’re my cousin”).

More troubles: Isabelle jumps off the winter ferry trying to die, Pierre publicly identifies himself as the author of the bestselling novel but is called an impostor, nobody wants his new book (“a raving morass that reeks of plagiarism”), Thibault is harassing them, and Pierre is getting shit from his conductor/landlord, whose musicans apparently also double as his private militia. So Pierre grabs some guns, goes into town and blows Thibault’s head off, is packed into the police van as his women both run after him, then Isabelle walks in front of a speeding ambulance.

It struck me as ironic that Pierre is trying to write a great, tortured novel, seeking the ultimate truths, while all his relationships are full of lies. Watched this because I enjoyed the unhinged awesomeness of Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge and his Merde short, and I’m hearing that his new one is bananas. But this was apparently the grimly serious piece between features of transcendent weirdness, despite a blood-soaked dream-sequence or two. I was looking forward to the Dirty Three score, but it’s actually by Scott Walker – what was I thinking of?

Lucie, in happier times:

Senses of Cinema:

If compared to Jean-Luc Godard and later Philippe Garrel in his first works, in Pola X we find a Carax closer to Jacques Rivette – who, not in vain, has declared that for him this is the most beautiful French film of the ’90s. The Rivettian airs can be found, for example, in the importance of the ideas of conspiracy, secrecy and masks; in the shots of large interior spaces like factory buildings and chateaus; and, above all, in the treatment of time: so many meters of film are used to follow the characters’ journeys, living the process with them – at the beginning of the film we follow Pierre all the way from the chateau where he lives to Lucie’s home, including the ferry ride; similarly, at the end of the film Carax spends a lot of time following Pierre’s journey to Thibault.