Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999

"Pola X"

by David Sterritt

Film Scouts on the Riviera 1999 is brought to you by:

Leos Carax is an extremely gifted filmmaker, and I've been a staunch defender of his much-debated "Lovers of Pont-Neuf" ever since its American premiere at the New York Film Festival when I was on the programming committee there. Carax still knows how to stir up heated discussion, as "Pola X" is proving with the varied reactions that have greeted it. It strikes me as quite a bad movie, though, and I have yet to hear a convincing argument in its favor. The story centers on a wealthy, sexy young writer who decides to become more "authentic" by plunging into a maelstrom of incest and violence that opens up when he meets a long-lost sister who grew up in circumstances more horrible than anything he'd allowed himself to imagine before learning her history. At first it seems that Carax is aiming for larger-than-life irony by overplaying first the posh luxuriousness of the hero's life, then the trancelike weirdness of the sister's revelations, and then the melodramatic consequences that grow from their increasingly passionate relationship. But gradually one realizes that Carax is taking all this very seriously, as if his allegedly bold tropes hadn't been anticipated by everyone from Werner Herzog ("Every Man for Himself and God Against All") to Mike Leigh ("Naked") in far better movies. Carax has an eye for arresting images, but the film's cinematic merit is diminished by his apparent determination to show all those "Pont-Neuf" detractors what an inventive artiste he is. For a small but telling example, consider an early sequence that cuts between the hero having a motorbike accident and his fiancee's being fitted for a wedding dress. Carax fabricates a potentially expressive match-cut between the man's hand on an oblong handlebar and a woman's hand wearing an oblong thimble, but to stress this visual rhyme he adds an unneeded shot of the man, interrupting the rhythm of the montage and making the moment seem strained and contrived instead of natural and flowing. To praise such filmmaking is like praising a poet who doesn't mind inserting an extra phrase to force a rhyme that wouldn't otherwise happen. Add the banality of the hero's decline, the portentousness of much of the dialogue - did you know that a "great lie" festers beneath our uncaring civilization? - and the silliness of several secondary characters, and you have a sadly pretentious movie by a filmmaker who's proved in all his previous features that he's capable of vastly better work. I hope he doesn't have to wait another eight years before completing his next feature, but I also hope "Pola X" sinks quietly into the oblivion it deserves.

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