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Pola X

Pola Who?

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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Pola X

Leos Carax is back

It's trendy to refer to Leos Carax's The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants Du Pont Neuf) as an overblown disaster, but I have to admit that I rather liked the movie, which didn't make it to American theatres until 10 years after its release in Europe. I saw it back in 1990, and I still remember the glorious moment when Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant celebrate their love during the bicentennial of the French Revolution -- their lives of abject misery and pain, set to the beat of Public Enemy, suddenly turn sublimely beautiful as the urban grit gives way to a waltz, and before you know it, they are water-skiing down the fireworks-illuminated Seine. That transcendent moment has stuck with me, and now, the enfant terrible of contemporary French cinema is back with a new movie that follows quite the opposite trajectory: from pastoral beauty to raving industrial despair.

The story, based on Herman Melville's 1852 novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, follows a beautiful, blond, rich, and khaki-clad writer (Guilliame Depardieu, the great Gérard's son) whose first novel was a stunning success and lives in a chateau with a mother who looks just like the aging Catherine Deneuve (Catherine Deneuve). He's about to get married to girl who lives in a mansion and is just as beautiful, blond, and has the same taste for lightly colored clothes as him. Everything is bright and joyful . . . but Pierre can't shake the feeling that he is being stalked by a mysterious stranger, a bag-carrying clochard with dark, long tangled hair (Katerina Golubeva).

In the only dragging sequence of the two-and-a-half-hour film, the girl reveals that she is Pierre's half-sister. Under her spell, the writer gives up his aristocratic privileges and follows her to live in Paris, where a slow descent into madness waits for him -- along with tear gas, abused children, industrial rock orchestras, incestuous desires, hateful cousins, and, worst of all, his own failure at artistic regeneration. His new novel is rejected by publishers with no uncertain turns ("a raving morass that reeks of plagiarism," if memory serves). Not even the return of his formerly radiant fiancee, now sickly and harried, can save him. His search for truth and authenticity leads into tragedy.

If you've been following the press this film received after its Cannes debut, you know that the reviews are mixed at best. The film is as fascinating as it is frustrating, and I spent the rest of evening after seeing it trying to tease out some of its riddles. Why the hell does Pierre address his mother as sister? What's the newsreel footage that opens the film all about? Is Isabelle really Pierre's half-sister? Why does his cousin Thibaud turn on him? Is the ending really unavoidable? What is that gang of mercenaries doing with all those animals, and where did they get the fancy laptops?

I won't pretend that I know. Instead, I'll take the safe position that these questions are part of the point: insolvable mysteries and the unattainability of truth are very much at the heart of Pola X. Leos Carax professes to reread Melville's novel every five years, without ever understanding it. He calls the book "a heavy question mark. You’re the dot under that mark and you mustn’t let it crush you." The film is his own search for an answer.

If you haven't gathered as much yet: this film is pretentious. There's no ironic distance here from the agony that making art supposedly entails. There's a lot of smoking and self-indulgent posing at windows, crying on speeding motorcycles, and dialogue that you'll never hear spoken out loud in the real world. There's also the prerequisite steamy sex scene that attracted most of the attention of mainstream US media. If you want knowing postmodern winks, look elsewhere: Carax is an unabashed romantic, and to be honest, I can't tell if this movie is a triumph or a disaster. I just know that I'm grateful that somebody had the courage to make it.

Steamy Sex and Motorbikes

The title of the film will be the least mystery for you to ponder as you walk out of this film, and it is one secret I am glad to unveil. Carax, who confesses that titles bore him, simply used the initials of his literary model's French title, plus the Roman numeral X: Pierre, ou les ambiguites. In this respect, the film isn't so different from this summer's Tom Cruise vehicle M:I-2. Come to think of it, both movies also prominently feature motorcycles. But that's where the similarities end. Maybe some visionary filmmaker of the future will further blend global filmmaking so we can expect a cross of M:I-2 and Pola X: a Hollywood blockbuster with French sensibilities based on a British TV series influenced by Herman Melville and shot by a Hong Kong action genius. Cruise could revive his tortured character from Eyes Wide Shut, adopt Guillaume Depardieu's bruised ego and limping walk, have stunning incest with Thandie Newton, and drop-kick every publisher who rejects his new masterpiece -- mumbling quotes from Hamlet and chain-smoking all the while.
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