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Friday, Oct. 8, 1999


Don't you love her madly?

Herman Melville released his magnum opus "Moby Dick" in 1851, it initially met with little success, and quickly faded from the public eye. Distressed, Melville buried himself in his next work, "Pierre, or the Ambiguities," and went a little mad in the process. Much to Melville's chagrin, even the critics didn't like "Pierre," which bombed big time.

Director Leos Carax's career seems to be taking its own Melville-like turns. Lauded as an auteur at the tender age of 22 when he released "Boy Meets Girl" in 1983, Carax hit his "Moby Dick" phase in '91, with the making of "Les amants de Pont Neuf," a film that became his own mad Captain Ahab quest, running way over-budget in a seemingly endless and problem-filled shoot. For Carax, "Pont Neuf" was an intensely personal attempt at making a grand statement, but the film was largely (and unfairly) savaged by much of the press for its production snafus and pretensions.

Stung by the reaction, the director took an eight-year hiatus (which Carax describes as "hell"), before deciding to return to cinema with "Pola X," a modern-day adaptation of Melville's "Pierre."

"Pola X" does contain all the usual Carax motifs -- obsessive love and life on the margins of society -- but the joy is gone. This tale of crazed passion and writer's block plays like "Betty Blue" in desperate need of some Prozac. By choosing to focus on a sensitive writer struggling with artistic success and the difficulty of following it up, it would seem that Carax is wallowing a bit too much in self-pity.

Set in contemporary France, Pierre (Guillame Depardieu, fils Gerard) is a golden boy who has it all: comfortable life in a country chateau, a platonic but undeniably Oedipal relationship with his mother (Catherine Deneuve), a stunning fiancee he shags before breakfast (Delphine Chuillot), and long lazy afternoons spent writing, for Pierre is an anonymous but highly successful cult author.

Yet somehow it all seems too perfect to Pierre, who jumps at the chance to wreck his life. He'd been risking it on high-speed night rides on his late father's motorcycle, but his demise comes from a far more prosaic direction a beautiful Yugoslav refugee named Isabelle (Katerina Golubeva).

When he confronts this ragged young woman who has been stalking him, she spins a mind-bender of a tale. In a breathless midnight monologue, shot in a deliriously whirling shot, she claims that she's actually Pierre's sister, begat and abandoned by Pierre's diplomat father in an affair. Isabelle then pours out a harrowing life-story of woe, flight and despair.

Whether any of her story is true, or simply madness, is open to question (later, Isabelle will fail to recognize a photo of Pierre's father), but Pierre, whose artistic career has been stymied by his all-too-cozy lifestyle, seems to long for chaos. He takes Isabelle under his wing, abandoning his mother and fiancee.

But Pierre is not quite the good Samaritan: His desire to help his long-lost sister Isabelle is equaled by his desire to sleep with her, and this incestuous obsession leads Pierre to total collapse. Out of money, out of friends and too distracted to write, Pierre and Isabelle take up residence at a militaristic squat outside Paris in a freezing abandoned factory. To get some much-needed cash, Pierre's publisher forces him to go public and discuss his art on a TV talk show -- a torture that eventually makes Pierre go berserk.

Ah yes, the artist's life is tough, and films like "Pola X" seek to validate that truism. For, as this post-Rimbaud strain of expression insists, the only pure art is born of suffering -- a half-truth if ever there was one. Suffering can make for good and poignant art (take a similarly gritty film like "La vie re^vee des anges") -- but it's the way that Carax dresses it up in the trappings of cool that makes it ring all too hollow. Pierre's suffering bears all the tragedy of an anorexic model in a Calvin Klein advert.

How does one measure when a film crosses the line from the artistic to the autistic? Does a confused prelude that includes a quote from Hamlet, grainy WWII air-raid footage, and shots of a cemetery qualify? How about a lead actor (Depardieu) who never unfurrows his brow for the length of the film? Or a lead actress (Golubeva) who seems to be making a career out of looking absolutely blank and emotionless?

For this viewer, the line was crossed with the mere presence of "Few of Us" director Sharunas Bartas -- perhaps the world's most masturbatory "auteur" filmmaker -- who appeared as the squat's leader. Dressed in black, wildly "conducting" a symphony of noise musicians in his factory fiefdom and leading military maneuvers on its rooftop, he seemed to be aping Ed Harris' Christo parody from "The Truman Show" -- except he's not in on the joke.

Perhaps one of the film's most obtuse tropes is its obsession with endless shots of Pierre rushing up and down stairwells. (This gets even weirder when he's doing it with a cane and an injured leg.) If this is metaphor, it's facile, but no more so than the rest of the film. Pierre's charmed life is symbolized by a radiant blonde girlfriend and rural chateau shot in glowing sunshine, while his decline is marked by a dark-eyed brunette and a gloomy urban hellhole.

Yes, Carax has lost it, buying completely into the worst sort of angst-chic and button-pushing "transgression." At times, the film manages to transcend this. In the inexplicable obsession of Pierre's passion for Isabelle, there is almost enough real feeling to carry the film.

Almost. Life is short, but art is long, as the saying goes, and life is far too short to waste two hours on bad art like "Pola X."

"Pola X" is playing at Cinema Rise in Shibuya. Dialogue in French, subtitles in Japanese.

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