Leos Carax’s psychological art film from 1999 screens on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on July 28.
Fiddling with a white lighter and pack of Marlboro Golds, writer-director Leos Carax avoids direct eye contact with an unseen interviewer, dwelling on the loveliness of a lone word. He says, “Having made a few films now, what I do always turns around the ‘sister.'” In the interview, a DVD extra from 2007, Carax tosses off the self-analysis almost casually, but his words create a thoughtful visionary link between him and Herman Melville—another artist in another medium in another century.
For his fourth feature, Pola X (1999), Carax transmutates Melville’s subversive 1852 novel Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities with the sort of verve one would expect of the same iconoclastic mind who enraptured audiences with delirious romances—sister films, even—Mauvais Sang (1986) and Lovers On The Bridge (1991). Using Melville’s template, Carax applies the same charged style to a tale of a family in the dual process of fraying and coupling, of incestuous dreams manifest, offering a portrait of the artist as an ageless man. Pola X, screening in rare form on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on Thursday, July 28, is a film of restless and uncertain desire wrapped up in a transgressive text that doesn’t provide answers, but, as Carax affectionately characterizes it, poses the “right questions.”
Initial search results and impressions of Pola X are likely to lump it in with what Artforum critic James Quandt coined as the “New French Extremity” movement for one particularly murky sexual encounter. Yet Carax’s approach is far from extreme, savoring the smoldering intrigue of the subconscious framed between fits of panicked disillusionment from protagonist Pierre Valombreuse (the late Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gérard).
In the film’s sun-drenched first act—which immediately follows a stock footage prologue of bomber planes over a Hamlet monologue and the wailing horns of Scott Walker’s “The Cockfighter,”—Pierre is seemingly ensconced in a picture-perfect life with his widowed mother Marie (Catherine Deneuve) on an oversized estate in Normandy. Luxuriating in secret fame after publishing an ironically titled novel, In The Light, under the pseudonym Aladin, he lounges with lover Lucie (Delphine Chuillot) in scenes that approach melodramatic parody. They’re out of time, as if they belong to modern day but are also stuck in late 17th century Wiltshire in Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). Carax soon foreshadows the disruption of this tranquility: Pierre narrates his dream of a woman’s face with long, darkly tangled hair. “A wanderer,” he describes her, “from who knows where,” somehow already hinting at the connection they share.
Soon, on a late-night motorcycle drive to see Lucie, Pierre happens upon that disheveled, oneiric woman’s face (Yekaterina Golubeva) lurking along the shoulder of a winding forested road. Compelled by immeasurable force, Pierre chases her through the thickets. When he catches her, she relays an unbroken six-minute monologue in broken French like a sibyl’s cryptic warning. She is Isabelle, his deceased father’s daughter, and therefore Pierre’s half-sister.
Isabelle’s story of childhood abduction and loneliness is an acknowledgment of a past unseen and somehow a glimpse into a future they may share together. Swept up in this possible truth or façade and already confessing to impostor syndrome, Pierre feels awestruck and reborn after their encounter and vows to uncover “real truths.” He abandons any notion of stability and takes off on a train for Paris to care for Isabelle, build a new life, and write a new novel. “For the world, you’ll be my wife,” he tells her, already burying whatever truths he’s vowed to unearth.
Pierre and Isabelle’s relationship is committedly incestuous, but it’s also one of surreal narcissism. Pierre sees Isabelle as another version of himself, a mirror of that scuzzy countenance and ageless face he once saw in his own dream. Holing up in an industrial warehouse loft-commune (featuring post-industrial noise rock big band rehearsals and a cameo from Smog’s Bill Callahan) that exists like a hellscape incarnation of something out of Downtown ’81, Pierre sits at a metal desk with a red marker scribbling the first three chapters of what will become his magnum opus.
Time vacillates achronlogically. Pierre is 25, and yet he’s 60, fitted with thick oversized spectacles and hobbling with a cane. He’s inspired, and yet he’s listless. Suddenly departing from Normandy, still-fiancée Lucie scouts for Pierre to reunite. After shouting him down in his loft, Lucie is introduced by Pierre as his “cousin” to “half-sister” Isabelle. It’s not destined to become a love triangle as much as it is a perverse family gathering—a deceptive, death-driven migration from the manicured lawns of the chateau to the grungy, mechanical bowels of Paris.
Who better to score that transition than former teen idol Scott Walker, who started in the luster of pop stardom only to withdraw into experimental obscurity—a real-life parallel to Pierre’s wandering. Walker’s score, performed by the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra, has that unmistakable intensity and menacing grandeur that can be heard in his last two film scores for Brady Corbet before his passing in 2019.
Compositions for Pola frequently hang in more tempered and brooding phases, and even flirt with major scales. The bright woodwinds and violins of “Light” are consumed by tragic melody and the low register of celli and double basses once “Isabelle” takes hold of Pierre’s psyche. Walker’s later music in the 1990s through the 2010s expressed inimitable interest in the boundaries in-between chords and discords (as conductor Brian Gascoigne claims). Likewise, Carax makes for an ideal collaborative partner, manifesting the ambiguities of Melville’s source material and title (spinning it into the “Pola” acronym affixed with an “X” not to suggest its rating but rather the ultimate screenplay draft number) with a tale rooted in moral and psychological obscurity.
With Pola X, Carax delves into the dark heart of human imposture within a borrowed narrative that often seems to exist outside measurable time, deconstructing notions and presenting intense questions of family, fame, and fecundity. After all, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) once said (in the same year as Carax’s film), “It’s the question that drives us. It’s the question that brought you here.”