Directed by Léos Carax

Written by Carax, Lauren Sedofsky and Jean-Pol Fargeau, based on Herman Melville's novel PIERRE, OR THE AMBIGUITIES

With Guillaume Depardieu, Katerina Golubeva, Catherine Deneuve and Delphine Chuillot

Distributed by WinStar Cinema


POLA X is the spectacle of Léos Carax with his youthful fireworks all defused, to lift a phrase from a Jacques Brel song. (Brel's frequent interpreter Scott Walker wrote the score, although its  mix of classical orchestration and noise-rock bears no resemblance to the 60s albums that earned Walker his cult following.) And there were  fireworks aplenty in LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF, the 1991 folly (as glorious as it was expensive) which more or less wrecked Carax's career. Upon debuting at age 23 with BOY MEETS GIRL, Carax often received comparisons to Rimbaud, but the prodigal poet gave up his art before burning out. After the commercial disaster of AMANTS, what subject could be more fitting than the travails of an artist maudit incapable of following up his early work and rapidly losing the public's respect? It was Melville's own story, and Carax could only make his identification with his hero more blatant if he played him.

After opening with newsreel footage of WWII explosions, POLA X cuts  to the French countryside, where  Pierre (Depardieu), a writer whose anonymously published first novel was a huge success, lives with his wealthy mother Marie (Deneuve), just around the corner from his fiancée Lucie (Chuillot.)  Although Pierre and Lucie are just about to get married, the mood of pastoral tranquility doesn't last long. Spotting  a feral, childlike waif (Lithuanian actress Golubeva)  lurking around Marie's estate, he tracks her down and finds out that her name is Isabelle. A refugee from a war-ravaged, unnamed Eastern European country, she claims to be his half-sister. (Since his late father was a diplomat stationed in Eastern Europe in the 70s, this seems plausible.) Falling in love with her, he decides to abandon  Lucie and move to Paris with Isabelle to start over on his second novel. Becoming more and more desperate, the couple eventually move into a frigid squat where a rock band constantly rehearses. Pierre gets quite a bit of writing done, while Isabelle drones on a harmonium all day, but their dismal financial straits  force him to deal with the outside world again.

Judging from Carax's interviews, he sees himself as no less romantic a figure than his characters. At the press conference  after last year's New York Film Festival press screening of POLA X, someone asked him how he spent the 8 years  it  took to get financed. Without no apparent irony, he replied "I went to hell." His bitterness is perfectly understandable, but it 's led to an unpleasantly self-pitying film. Drawing obvious inspiration from AMANTS, French chameleon Patrice Leconte beat POLA X into American theaters by a few weeks with GIRL ON THE BRIDGE, his (intentional?) parody of French romanticism. (A double feature of GIRL ON THE BRIDGE and POLA X would be quite interesting.) For all AMANTS' melodrama, it escaped self-parody through  its ability to speak about passion from the inside while still maintaining a critical distance on its characters. (As much as it exalts its protagonists' love, it's quite frank about its hero's willingness to let his girlfriend go blind so she'll be more dependent on him.) That detachment is gone in POLA X: even if Pierre and Isabelle's devotion to their misery often looks rather silly, the film takes it dead seriously.

Even more than MAUVAIS SANG or AMANTS, POLA X is a film of set pieces. While some are quite striking (especially the musical performances - which sound like  a cross between Sonic Youth's guitar dissonance and  Einsturzende Neubauten's scrap-metal percussion -  and the eight-minute sequence in which Isabelle relates her sad life story to Pierre as they walk through a forest at night), none match the exhilaration of Denis Lavant's dance to "Modern Love" in MAUVAIS SANG - for that, you'll have to turn to Lavant's dance in the final scene of BEAU TRAVAIL - or AMANTS' Bastille Day sequence. (Were I heterosexual, the unsimulated sex scene between Depardieu and Golubeva's body double might come closer.) Both the walk and the sex scene are submerged in lighting so dim that its darkness seems like a metaphor for the film's exhausted spirit. It never adds up to an organic whole, and its excess becomes more tiring than exciting. Additionally, Carax's storytelling is elliptical enough to make one suspect that his original cut was much longer than this version's 135 minutes. Why does the rock band at Pierre and Isabelle's squat also spend their time in paramilitary exercises? Is Isabelle the mother of the two children with whom she arrives? Even after two viewings,  the answers remain unclear.

At worst, POLA X comes across like a privileged man's fantasy of anti-glamorous Bohemian squalor: heroin chic without the heroin. (In the final scenes, Depardieu even starts to look like Kurt Cobain.) Carax's critics might argue that the same is true of AMANTS, but there, his decision to grant grandeur to the love between a homeless couple felt like  an act of respect. While AMANTS affirmed that joy exists under even the most difficult circumstances,  the world of POLA X is almost entirely joyless (and humorless). The notion that self-destruction spurs creativity and that illness and poverty can be existential choices was probably dated even before Melville wrote PIERRE, OR THE AMBIGUITIES, as Pierre's agent points out in a rare moment of common sense. Pierre's slumming would make a fitting subject for a satire (a la GIRL ON THE BRIDGE), but Carax treats it with the utmost respect. This lack of irony, although   appealing on a certain level,  doesn't bode well for his future work. POLA X says a great deal about  how youthful dreams fade. Sadly, most of it seems unintentional.