movie review by
David Ng


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Pola X

Like its handsome but vapid hero Pierre, a twenty-six year old French writer, Pola X is a beautiful bomb, visually arresting but emotionally incoherent. There are some scenes so gorgeous that we are briefly tempted to stay in our seats: the image of Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) on horseback galloping through a forest; or his fiancée Lucie standing on a pedestal in her very long wedding dress; or his mother (Catherine Deneuve) riding deliriously on a motorcycle, her mascara-streaked eyes filled with grief. Then there is the infamous sex scene which occurs late in the story, and which has dogged this movie ever since its Cannes premiere last year. Yes, we see actual penetration, but it isn’t pornographic. Director Leos Carax films it in such a way that the two bodies seem to be hungrily consuming each other. The effect is fascinating but muddled; it’s not clear what purpose this visual trickery serves. And the same can be said for the entire movie. Pola X works best in airhead mode, when it isn’t trying to impress us, when we can forget about the inane plot and the inane characters and simply watch beautiful people cavort in beautiful settings.

Depardieu plays Pierre as a super-model playboy, all golden locks and Hugo Boss outfits. We would never guess that he’s a gifted novelist whose latest book has become a runaway hit. But there he is every night, hammering away at his computer, spewing one pretentious line after another. He and his mother live in seclusion on a magnificent estate that looks like a set piece from Dangerous Liaisons. Everything about them is 18th century; even their relationship is faintly incestuous. Their anachronistic existence is one of the movie’s more inspired creations. It’s a completely fabricated world, but Depardieu and Deneuve inhabit it with such effortless magnanimity that we can’t help but wish that it existed. This idyllic set-up is a remarkable departure for Carax who typically plunges head first into squalor. The opening scenes of his previous film, the hugely under-appreciated Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont Neuf), places us in the center of a homeless shelter whose filth and stench almost ooze off the screen.

Trouble for Pierre and for the movie arrives in the form of a mysterious waif named Isabelle (Katerina Golubeva), a homeless Balkan refugee who shows up one day and claims to be Pierre’s long lost sister. In a dreamy monologue that lasts close to ten minutes, she explains her haunted past, the Bosnian war, and her exile to France. With her drab clothes, deathly pail skin, and unkempt hair, she is clearly intended to be a ghost… but a ghost of what? Isabelle never assumes a concrete identity. Her sole purpose in the movie is to drive Pierre insane. Under her spell, he dumps his fiancée, tells his mother off, and rejects his entire lifestyle. Pierre and Isabelle move to Paris together where he believes he can start writing "real novels," but we know he will fail. When he finally does, it’s as suspenseful as witnessing the ultimate death rattle of a long suffering invalid.

For a short while, the movie has fun exploring the Pierre-Isabelle dynamic. She is a true outsider while he is an outsider wannabe. Together, they are on a kamikaze mission: they get thrown out of a hotel, get arrested, and become homeless. They are truly a pathetic couple. They move into an abandoned warehouse and the story’s focus shifts back to Pierre, particularly his writing, as he tries to churn out his next classic. Isabelle has nothing to do for the rest of the movie. Her function as a catalyst for Pierre’s lunacy already completed, she sits around and has the occasional premonition of Pierre’s death. Increasingly disheveled, Pierre holes himself up in his room, scribbling furiously, absolutely convinced of his artistry.

Carax takes great joy in externalizing Pierre’s state of mind. As he grows insane, the sounds around him become amplified: the scratch of his pen on paper, a beeping car alarm, the howling wind. The camera work and editing also become wilder and more jagged. It’s a complete contrast to the silky serenity of the movie’s first half. But Pierre’s transformation is ultimately meaningless because he was never an interesting character to begin with. His beauty long gone, we can barely stand to look at him much less care about his fate. It’s surprising that a movie that depends so much on the good looks of its characters is adapted from a densely cerebral novel by Herman Melville. Carax has substituted his visual panache for the novel’s complex characterizations. If there is one image that represents the spirit of Pola X, strengths and weaknesses alike, it is Pierre reclining under an enormous rock formation. We’re not sure what the rocky mass signifies: its meaning like its shape is amorphous -- but the way it so completely overshadows Pierre can only portend dark destruction.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]