Pola X (1999)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 9 || Director Leos Carax | Writers Leos Carax and Jean-Pol Fargeau (based on the novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville) | Cinematographer Eric Gautier | Starring Guillaume Depardieu, Katerina Golubeva, Catherine Deneuve | Length 131 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 12 November 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© AMLF

I’ve been familiar with this film for many years, having bought the soundtrack CD quite some time ago. It’s by probably my favourite modern musical artist, Scott Walker, whose career seems every bit as shrouded in enigma as this film he was involved with as composer. Even in his 1960s pop heyday as a member of The Walker Brothers, Scott’s compositions have had an elegiac and melancholy air, and his ‘comeback’ album a few years prior to this movie was Tilt, a darkly opaque piece of work that makes even Pola X seem light by comparison. But it’s a family psychodrama with strong overtones of incest, so it’s not really light by many standards except those set by Walker’s music. The director, Leos Carax, was making his own comeback of sorts after the troubled production on his budget-stretching Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), though one gets the sense that commercial success isn’t really a metric that much bothers Carax, and the amount of time between this film and his next (and most recent) one, Holy Motors (2012), was even longer.

The film starts out like any overstuffed heritage film, with a master shot of a large rural chateau, manicured lawns being watered by sprinklers, as a young man kickstarts his motorcycle and takes it up the long driveway. This is the home of the title character Pierre, played by Guillaume Depardieu (the film’s title being a contraction of the French name for the Herman Melville novel on which it is based), a blond-haired diplomat’s son and newly-published novelist who lives at the chateau with his controlling mother, Marie (Catherine Deneuve), and is engaged to the similarly blonde-haired Lucie, whom he is off to meet at the start. So far, so unremarkable: a contented life of golden people dressed in airy light-coloured clothes in lush surroundings, a life lived in privilege (even the bar where he meets up with his shady cousin Thibault is called Le Privilège) — except perhaps for that darkly portentous score, which hides something sinister in its outwardly lush string arrangements. Soon, details accrue that add to the portent: the oddly-tactile Marie caressing her son’s bare chest; a mysterious dream Pierre recounts to Lucie about a dark-haired woman; then the woman herself (Katerina Golubeva) who shows up in person at the cafe with his cousin, and again when Pierre takes a night-time drive. She tells him, in broken French (the actress herself is Russian) as they wander in the suffocating dark of the forest, that she is his sister Isabelle. It’s from this point that his life begins to unravel, as he moves with her to the city and encounters a bohemian world of artists, experimental musicians and squatters on the fringes of civilised existence.

Even in this summary I’ve omitted hints of the film’s gathering strangeness, for there’s a pre-credits prologue spoken by a wheezing old man over archival wartime footage, recounting a famous line from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint! O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” This setup hints at the self-consciously staged manipulativeness of the film’s story itself, and its oneiric quality is further suggested by having both lead female characters shown asleep at the start — at the end of that opening shot of the chateau, once Pierre has driven away, the camera ostentatiously cranes in and up to peer through a window near the roof, catching sight of a sleeping woman, matched by a similar shot of the sleeping Lucie being caressed by Pierre. That further developments happen in dreams and at night can hardly be by chance, such that Pierre’s later journey into a form of madness seems in keeping with the film’s pervasive sense of the uncanny, not too dissimilar to what one might expect in the films of David Lynch, for example. There are also some apparently unsimulated sex scenes, again taking place in the half-light and ending with a shot recalling Courbet’s famous painting L’Origine du monde (hint: don’t google it if you’re at work) — itself recalling the work of contemporaneous French filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s Humanité, released the same year.

All of this would seem to put Pola X in the same lineage as the rather more extreme cinema coming out of France at around this time from directors like Dumont, Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé and Philippe Grandrieux, a cinema focusing on the fleshy corporeality of bodies and the shock of breaking sexual taboos (known as the ‘New French Extremity’ it would seem, though I had not previously been aware of this term). Yet I’m not quite convinced that what’s seen in Carax’s film fits clearly in with these other directors’ works, mainly because it feels to me like Carax is more interested in playing with bourgeois narrative expectations, than in his characters as corporeal beings being acted upon. In keeping with the source text, there remains a sort of 19th century moralising to the way Pierre’s story unfolds and concludes, and the ‘extremes’, such as they are, seem to fit more into a fevered framework of mounting melodrama.

I like films which start mysteriously. The darkness that sets in here even seems to have carried on beyond the film, as both the actors playing these central characters (Depardieu and Golubeva) have since died in mysterious circumstances. There’s something grandiose and almost ethereal about this film, but that stays grounded in emotions which are resolutely human and carnal. It’s a difficult balancing act that could have easily been lost given all the sources of funding (a co-production involving four different countries) and the multiple drafts of the script (the “X” in the title evidently refers to the 10th version being used), but I think it comes off rather well and has a mystery that on further reflection only deepens into greater enigma and inscrutability.

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