27 June 2007 | Quinoa1984
is pretentious always a bad thing? maybe not, even if it keeps from being very recommendable
I kept thinking watching Pola X, the first Leos Carax film I've seen yet, what it means for a film or any work of art to be "pretentious". The dictionary defines it as being or seeming to be "expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature". Carax does indeed want his film to be important, and sometimes he does go to exaggerated lengths to get his results, of the 'artsy-fartsy' kind that one would only find in small art-houses in NYC (in fact, this was probably a film that screened for at least a month at the Angelika in Manhattan). But there's an intriguing conceit that Carax has with his material as it goes along: it's almost as if he's critiquing pretension, mocking it in subtle ways as he shows his disparate and desperate character heading towards an uber tragic end. It's a story that unfolds too thickly in hopelessness, where the characters don't seem to mind it as there is hope for two of them, at one point, that things will get better until they start getting horribly worse, sometimes in the abstract. Try as I might have at the half-way point to dismiss it as rambling pseudo-poetic French dreck, there's an appeal and watchable quality to it all, and I'd almost be inclined to call it a good effort...Almost.
The story is taken from a Herman Melville novel, though I'd wonder how much exactly was changed in the adaptation (incest, anyone?) Pierre (Depardieu, son of Gerard) is a novelist engaged to beautiful Lucie, and lives with his mother (Deneauve), but is torn away after finding one night in the woods that he has a long lost older sister who was raised elsewhere in Europe. He moves with her to Paris, and after getting rejected by a cousin (Lucas, disappearing for a long while in the film then returning in act three, or five, or whatever), go to live in a big warehouse type of loft where a weird avant-garde rock band practices and records songs. Meanwhile, a new crazy book is in the works, a child that was tagging along with another woman (I'd assume Isabelle's friend or caregiver or something) is killed randomly, and pretty quickly Pierre goes as insane and rambling as his book. Now, granted, a lot of this is presented matter-of-factly, but there is a mood that Carax creates that makes it "affected". There's a tint, for example, that sometimes makes characters look all blue- which works more or less in the revelation of who Isabelle is to Pierre in the woods- and scenes that aren't totally clear as to whether they are really real or imagined (Deneuve's fate on a bike is shot and executed almost as a parody of itself). And Depardieu himself is like a walking pit of uncertain angst. He plays him adequately enough, but there is the creeping sense, as with the film a lot of times, that there isn't quite as much dimension as one would hope, or at least would think the filmmaker would recognize.
Not that this is a total deterrent. I like when a filmmaker isn't afraid to plunge the viewer into unconventional duress and ambiguity, and for at least a few scenes Pola X does feel thriving with a sense of drama infused well by the exquisite but anxious camera-work (the child's death is one of these, as well as the climax that gains momentum in a style comparable to Strosek, minus the chicken). And the actual band in the movie itself seems to be Carax commenting on what he must realize is over-reaching in other sections; is it to be taken seriously, really, when we see the lead singer or whomever it is doing a weird body movement while the abdomen is covered in red? There's even a trippy dream scene with characters in a river of blood that treads that pretension line: you can sense the filmmaker behind it is so happy with how it came out as mad as it is, and it's actually quite an eye-full. Carax also pulls off one of the most explicit sex scenes in film history (full penetration, among other acts of foreplay), and this oddly enough does serve an emotional point- it feels eerie in the light, but strangely intimate.
All of this adds up to what then? Is Pola X worth watching? If you're familiar already with/admire Carax's work, it's a pretty safe bet as an act of semi-experimentation. For a first-timer to his work, like myself, it's a hit or miss experience, but one I wasn't too upset at having. At the least, one can say, Carax didn't go to the lengths of the man who directed a film Carax once starred in: Godard's King Lear. 6.5/10