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Further down the spiral
A UK region 2 DVD review of POLA X from The Leos Carax Collection by Slarek
 

Word has it that some of the more unsympathetic critical reception to Leos Carax's 1991 Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was at least partly responsible for the director's eight-year break from feature film directing. It's certainly a film that split opinion. I first sought it out specifically because people I knew kept telling me how good it was and never quite understood the hostility some still harbour towards it. Carax's fourth feature Pola X was thus a long time coming, and it was some time after its original release that I finally caught up with it. Having appreciated and even admired this singular director's previous work, I was looking forward to Pola X, despite the critical mauling it suffered in some quarters and the oft-repeated assurance that it was not like his other films. Carax had already demonstrated that he was a filmmaker of considerable talent, and a change of direction might not be a bad thing at all.

The film arrived on UK shores with the word 'controversial' already sewn on. It's a term I always have trouble taking too seriously. Controversial by whose standards? As it happens, I had little trouble seeing why the label was applied here, but time and subsequent films have taken the edge of Pola X's ability to shock. It's certainly not one for the casual or sensitive viewer, but is also a well made and single-minded piece of work, littered with the sort of inventive touches I've come to expect from Carax. But it's also... ah, let's deal with the story first.

Adapted from Herman Melville's 1852 novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities and transposed from New York to France, Pola X (so titled as an acronym of the French title of the novel, Pierre ou les ambiguities, with the X representing the tenth draft of the screenplay) centres around wealthy Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gérard, which I'm sure he's by now sick of people pointing out), who lives in a large country house with his devoted mother (Catherine Deneuve, marvellous as always) and is engaged to his equally rich cousin Lucie (Delphine Chuillot), who resides in an equally opulent nearby abode. Pierre is not only rich, he's a successful writer, having penned a novel under the pseudonym Aladin that has become a cult success in the domestic youth market. Pierre, it seems, has it all.

One day he is sitting at a café with his close friend Thibault (Laurent Lucas) when the pair notice a dark-haired woman (Yekaterina Golubev) who appears to be spying on them. Pierre gives chase but to no avail. Later he encounters her on a road at night and when cornered she claims to be his long-lost sister Isabelle. Pierre becomes obsessed with Isabelle's past history and future fate and decides to turn his back on his marriage and wealth and live with her as brother and sister. Their initially fruitless search for a suitable abode eventually lands them rooms above a cavernous warehouse, a base and rehearsal studio for a post-industrial band who also appear to be preparing for guerilla war. As circumstances bring the couple closer, the nature of their relationship begins to change.

On its original release, Pola X was not met with an enthusiastic response. Some of the more negative reaction was of the sort that always makes me want to see the film being slated, usually because there's a snotty superiority to the writing that suggests the sort of reviewer I'd probably set on fire if I met them at a party. But Pola X was attracting a different sort of criticism, a recognition of quality and almost a reluctance to admit the failings, which were seen as considerable. Reviewers wanted to like it, but couldn't. And you know what? I kind of see where they're coming from.

OK, it's my personal prejudice that makes it hard for me to feel for the woes of the landed gentry or frankly care that much for them when they fall from grace, whatever the route. Too often there's the sense that such people are thrown into a spiral of self-disintegration, usually by a significant but hardly earth-shattering event or revelation, simply because they have nothing else in their lives to worry about. So it is with Pierre, who seems primed from the start to believe the tale that Isabelle tells and is all too ready to throw off the so-called trappings of privilege to find an essential truth to life, one that will give meaning to his new-found anxieties and perhaps inspire his writing. It could be argued that Carax shares my cynicism here in his determination to rub Pierre's nose in his folly, dishing out punishment both mental and physical and in the process effecting a transformation from rich bright young thing to shambling, bedraggled and murderous sociopath.

We're not invited to identify with Pierre so much as pity him, and if much of his pain seems self-inflicted then there is also the suggestion of predisposition to some of his actions, his incestuous relationship with his new-found sister signalled early on by a mother-son bond that appears to go a little beyond the maternal. And you won't miss this connection, as the film does tend to dress its subtext in particularly loud colours – the rich are shown to be incestuous, shallow, self-centred and disloyal, while the black dressed musical revolutionaries are on hand more for their nihilistic associations and to provide the required last act weaponry than for any narrative logic. This shout from the rear is completed when the desperate Pierre is forced to reveal his identity as the man behind the Aladin enigma, the destruction of his artistic façade accelerating his downward plunge.

Inevitable and increasingly downbeat, something I personally don't have a problem with, the film's continued status as a controversial work stems less from its brother-sister incest story or its explicit sex (neither were exactly making their film debut here) than the combination of the two, resulting in a passionate, done-for-real sex scene whose troubling undertones strip it of the eroticism it might otherwise have had. Which is clearly the point, of course. There's no doubt that Carax is pushing some of the right buttons here, but Pierre's descent into nihilism is something I found myself observing rather than understanding or emotionally engaging with. This disengagement is enhanced in the later stages by some sizeable narrative jumps, the result, apparently, of Carax editing this version down from a three-hour first cut.

And yet, as ever with Carax, there is still much to admire here, not least in the well judged performances, Eric Gautier's cinematography, Scott Walker's score (yes, the Scott Walker), and scattered moments that remind you just how exciting a filmmaker Carax can be when he's on form: Pierre's tumble from his motorbike; the dark woodland encounter between Pierre and Isabelle; the beautifully executed camera move that gives us our first view of the warehouse musicians; Deneuve's night-time bike ride; the exhilarating tracking shot that accompanies a fleeing Isabelle; the almighty wind that Pierre battles through to check for mail. And despite its emotional distance, intellectually and artistically the film exercises a peculiar if uneven hold.

We are left with a work that feels as troubled and perhaps even as mixed-up as its lead character, one that is guaranteed to piss off and/or depress a sizeable portion of its audience. And yet for all its flaws, Pola X is still a damned sight more interesting and imaginative than the majority of pap you'll find decorating the DVD shelves at Woolworths, and the sort of film that I, for one, am rather glad is out there.

sound and vision

Another fine anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer for The Leos Carax Collection, something not always obvious from the film's sometimes deliberately gloomy look. This is particularly evident in the night-time woodland meeting between Pierre and Isabelle, where darkness of the image is such that detail only just registers. Contrast, colour and sharpness on the early daytime countryside vistas, however, are of a high order.

As with the other films in this collection, the soundtrack is Dolby 2.0, but this time is stereo, a decent enough track in itself with a very reasonable dynamic range and good separation in places. However, the original soundtrack was mixed in both 5.1 and DTS and Fox Lorber's US DVD release includes an apparently impressive 5.1 track. There are scenes where the surround mix and low frequency wallop of 5.1 would definitely enhance the experience, notably the near hurricane wind that accompanies Pierre on his mail run and the warehouse-filling metal banging of the industrial music (which, unlike many other reviewers, I am rather partial to).

extra features

Selected filmographies for Guillaume Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve and Katerina Golubeva and a brief Leos Carax biography. Again we lose out to the US disc, which featured a commentary by Guillaume Depardieu.

summary

Not an easy recommendation as a stand-alone, but a welcome inclusion in this set, and if you don't like it – and a fair few haven't – then at least there are two other films to take away the pain. Personally I think there's enough here to make it worthwhile to anyone seriously interested in outsider cinema, as Carax is still a director going his own way regardless, and if he stumbles a bit en route (and he does), then let's be grateful there's at least a few still walking that road.

Of the three discs in Artificial Eye's Leos Carax Collection this is the only one that disappoints in any way. The transfer is fine and apparently considerably superior to the US Fox Lorber release, but the lack of extras and a 5.1 soundtrack are a bit of a let-down.

Pola X
The Leos Carax Collection

France / Switzerland / Germany / Japan 1999
129 mins
director
Leos Carax
starring
Guillaume Depardieu
Yekaterina Golubeva
Catherine Deneuve
Delphine Chuillot
Laurent Lucas

DVD details
region 2
video
1.66:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
French
subtitles
English
extras
Filmographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
23 April 2007
review posted
9 May 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews