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Pola X

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Review by DVD Savant | posted March 16, 2001 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Leos Carax has the kind of reputation you associate with the heyday of art films back in the '60s, when some strange character with long hair and shades would walk up to you and say, "Forget Polanski.  Here's the greatest filmmaker in the world, but nobody else knows it."  Savant read about Carax in Film Comment, but came away knowing nothing about him, as articles about filmmakers whose appeal borders on the intangible tend to communicate little except vague intimations of genius.  Now, DVD Savant is fairly mainstream - we review MGM Musicals here, after all - but he rejects the philosophy that art films are shot in some impenetrable process that only intellectuals can appreciate.  After viewing Pola X, an interesting movie, I tried to read some recent reviews online.  What I got were more impressions of reviewers carried off by imagery they can't describe, along with typical shock coverage of the sex in the movie, to assure all that the reviewer is hip and cool, even if the reader is not.  I'll try to express what I saw when I watched Pola X, and not review the cult.


Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) lives in a glorious chateau with his mother Marie (Catherine Deneuve), with whom he has an undefined but curiously incestuous relationship.  They both revere the memory of Pierre's father, a famous diplomat who has an undefined but curious relationship to atrocities in WW2.  1  Pierre is not only rich, he is also a celebrated author (under a pen name) of a book that has 'inspired his generation.  He commutes daily to another glorious chateau to make love to his delicate, sweet fiancee Lucie (Delphine Chuillot).  Together they share an undefined but curiously ambisexual relationship with his moody cousin Thibault (Laurent Lucas).  This eden of privilege is shattered when a mysterious vagrant woman, previsioned by Pierre in weird dreams, begins haunting him in the woods and in town.  When he finally confronts her, she claims to be Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubyova), his sister, unacknowledged by the controlling Marie.  Pierre has a lifestyle crisis.  He smashes into a walled room upstairs hoping to get the goods on his father, but finds nothing.  Abandoning his home, his fiancee, his mother and his inheritance, he takes Isabelle and her two war - refugee companions into an underground lifestyle of poverty while he tries to write a meaningful follow-up novel about squalor and lies - the real truth of his times.  That's when things get even weirder.

Pola X is an interesting movie whose finely crafted images don't overcome the handicap of a script with too many implausibles and coincidences, creating an elaborate but uncompelling world.  This Pierre comes off as none too bright, yet is somehow a genius of his times.  Just being in any way sympathetic would have sufficed, but alas, no.  Although the story may adhere closely to the Melville source story, the plotting is just too pat and convenient.  When Pierre abandons his life, there is no-one, not even his mother, attempting to track him down.  In a few short moments he's transformed into a rebel vagrant with a grudge against the system.  Savant guesses that the detail of people being thrown out of a taxi because they smell, and the idea that a child can be killed on the street by a random passerby, are from Melville.  Also, probably, the admonitions of a jaded publisher who tells Pierre that he's best writing immature prose and should lay off the 'expose the slime' genre.  But this and other effective details are drowned in visual fashion.  Pierre and co.'s lush lifestyle really doesn't end when he becomes a vagabond writer; with his hair tousled and his body wrapped in stylish looking greatcoats and odd boots stuffed with paper, Pierre's still making a fashion statement like everything else in Pola X.

The trendiest, and most limiting aspect of Pola X is the sex.  There's always time for some moody nudity by all the actresses involved, and the 'hot' sex 'twixt Depardieu and Golubyova is an X rated hardcore encounter that overpowers most of the scenes around it, making the drama seem even less real.  The worst and most telling component of the show is placing Pierre's writing hideout in a cavernous ex-factory where blonde, cadaverous hipsters are performing and recording avant garde noise-based music.  They're all disaffected, zombie-like artistic vagabonds, but also surrounded by expensive equipment and dressed by some art director who needs to look beyond fashion magazines.  It all seems to be window dressing, as the ambiguous (read: evasive) unexplored, unexplained twisty sexual relationships are meant to take the place of real characters and real content.  The ending is from the 'give it a violent downbeat payoff' school of serious art filmmaking.

Guillaume Depardieu can be immediately spotted by the resemblance to his father Gerard.  He doesn't walk, he shambles about just like dad.  His acting is quite good.  He kind of reminds one of Michael Sacks, the star of Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sugarland Express thirty years ago.  Catherine Deneuve is still stunning-looking, and just as gutsy as ever in her nude scene.  The women who play Pierre's fiancee and (?) sister are excellent, but are locked into roles where haunted faces and looks are more important than acting.

Fox Lorber's 16:9 enhanced DVD of Pola X sounds terrific, but has some drawbacks in the image department.  It looks as if an insufficient bit rate has made the frequent dark and purposely defocused shots grainy and full of mottled smearing.  Even some of the exteriors shot in the beautiful French countryside seem to fluctuate in brightness and sharpness, which leads Savant to wonder if the movie were converted from PAL to NTSC or something and picked up a lot of digital errors along the way.  This judgement was from watching the film on a very large screen and might not be a fair assessment of its looks on a smaller monitor.  This visual inconsistency is a shame because the camerawork by Eric Gautier is truly dazzling; the film is always a treat to watch ... except those dark scenes.  The hottest sex scene is so dark that various body parts seem to dissolve into the murk ... and not intentionally.

Extras include some extra unused scenes and a trailer.  A commentary track with the star Depardieu would have become tiresome, except he explained some plot points glossed over in the film itself.

A notorious and certainly fashionable art film, Pola X leans on the pretentious side but might appeal to those liking their cinema in strong doses.  As the packaging doesn't let on, some viewers are going to be unpleasantly surprised when they get to the hardcore scene ... but that's life in the DVD jungle.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pola X rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: fair
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 15, 2001


1. How can Pierre's father have been a WW2 personality if both Pierre and his mother Marie are so young?  Is the war mentioned really the Balkan war, with its own share of atrocities?  Then what is the meaning of the (excellent, disturbing) precredits montage of Stuka bombers blowing up a cemetery? A dream of Pierre's? Return

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