Desperate Remedies

Neither genius nor poseur, the aging enfant terrible who calls himself Leos Carax can be seen to best advantage in Pola X. This moody, rapturous adaptation of Pierre, Herman Melville's gothic follow-up to Moby-Dick, is never less than seriously romantic.

Melville supposedly wrote Pierre in a few weeks and a state of "morbid excitement." Pola X encourages you to believe it. Events unfold in a headlong rush even when nothing much happens. The movie begins by quoting Shakespeare ("time is out of joint") and reveling in newsreel footage of World War II aerial bombing—most spectacularly, an exploding graveyard. After this violent Caraxysm signifying the resurrection of the dead, the camera gently descends upon an idyllic Normandy château where the promising young writer Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu, Gerard's son) lives in innocent bliss with his incestuously doting mother (Catherine Deneuve), next door to his adoring fiancée, Lucie (Delphine Chuillot).

Were it not for Pierre's motorbike, the summery landscape would be perfectly 1800. Indeed, Carax hews closely to Melville's tale, in which Pierre's discovery of a dark and mysterious half-sister named Isabelle, the embodiment of his late father's secret sin, leads him to renounce pretend incest for the real thing. Carax, however, eschews the sarcasm with which Melville skewered his principled, if confused, protagonist. ("The book is full of irony but I'm not gifted for that," the filmmaker told interviewer Dave Kehr on the occasion of Pola X's premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.)

Boy meets girl: Depardieu and Chuillot in Pola X.
photo: Marion Stalens
Boy meets girl: Depardieu and Chuillot in Pola X.

Details

Pola X
Directed by Leos Carax
Written by Carax, Lauren Sedofsky, and Jean-Pol Fargeau from the novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities by Herman Melville
A WinStar release
Angelika
Opens September 8

Nurse Betty
Directed by Neil LaBute
Written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg
A USA Films release
Opens September 8

The Way of the Gun
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie
An Artisan release
Opens September 8

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Conventionally regarded as a heroic literary failure about heroic literary failure, Pierre is a subject close to Carax's heart. ("Pola" is the acronym of the novel's French title; the "X" signifies Carax's 10th draft.) The film reiterates the same outlaw love story that has characterized Carax's three previous features—and, as the novel followed the commercial disaster of Moby-Dick, so Pola X is the follow-up to Carax's would-be blockbuster The Lovers on the Bridge. Perhaps his time has come, if it has not been usurped by the calculated whimsy of Patrice Leconte's locally successful faux Carax Girl on the Bridge.

Carax has more grit in his amour fou. Depardieu's Pierre has a slightly brutish quality; his hulking near-constant motion contrasts with Isabelle's succubus passivity. As played by Katya Golubeva (the Russian actress who appeared in Claire Denis's I Can't Sleep), Isabelle is a sepulchral presence—mournful and hollow-eyed with a high toneless voice that shades into a piercing cry. Carax suggests that she's a reproachful Balkan ghost. (In Melville, Isabelle is a daughter of the French Revolution.) The movie is too anachronistic to make any but the most sweeping social statements, but once Pierre relocates to Paris with Isabelle and her familiars—a mother and daughter, perhaps Gypsies—Carax adds a critique of French xenophobia to the general hysteria.

Pola X may be pretentious and self-indulgent, but it's not the least bit literary. As Jean-Luc Godard once said of Brian De Palma, Carax "works from the image." Pierre pursues Isabelle's lurking specter through the woods in a sequence so harshly lit it seems to have been printed on negative stock. Elsewhere a motorcycle crack-up is shot from a foot off the pavement with the bike spinning down the road—Carax cuts just before it hits the camera. The movie is as visually convulsive as the long, graphic sex scene played out between Pierre and Isabelle in the cold shadows of their clammy Paris hovel.

As Carax approaches this material in total identification with Pierre's noble ambition, so Pola X has been released by WinStar, the nervy distributor of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Humanité. WinStar has also boldly acquired the two movies that made Carax's precocious reputation as a cinematic Rimbaud. Scarcely seen here since their New York Film Festival showings, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986) will be screened at the Walter Reade, Tuesday through Thursday.


Something like The Truman Show in reverse, Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty has the most provocative high-concept premise since Being John Malkovich. The movie—in which a Kansas naïf wills herself into the Emerald City of network tele-reality—was written by John C. Richards, a onetime stand-up comedian, and his partner, James Flamberg; would-be wacky and amiably twisted, it's temperamentally antithetical to the nastiness of LaBute's own scripts.

Betty (the infinitely sympathetic Renée Zellweger) is a friendly small-town waitress with big, messy hair, nursing-school dreams, and a monstrous soap-opera jones. Specifically, she's obsessed by the handsome Dr. Ravell (Greg Kinnear) in A Reason to Love. Her husband (Aaron Eckhart), a swinish car dealer with a haircut to match, has projected himself into a less wholesome scenario. Having run afoul of some big-city dope dealers, he's confronted by a pair of enforcers: conscientious Morgan Freeman and volatile Chris Rock. The scene turns ugly, although, hidden in the den watching A Reason to Love on tape, Betty escapes the carnage in the next room, and does not seem at all put out. Enacting the American, she takes off for the coast in her husband's LeSabre with the hit team in pursuit—her state helpfully diagnosed in the press notes as a dissociative fugue, "a combination of amnesia and physical fright" in which "the individual flees from his customary surroundings toward the assumption of a new identity."

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