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.)
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.”
In this case, that new identity is a role in A Reason to Love—literally. Once in L.A., Betty dons her nurse’s uniform and goes looking for a job in the soap’s imaginary hospital; after she’s set up to see the actor who plays Dr. Ravell, she begins improvising with his character, much to his fascination. For a time, Betty suggests a contemporary Maria Montez—effectively deforming reality to the dimensions of her own imagination. She even casts a spell on one of her pursuers, who, much to his colleague’s disgust, is mesmerized by their quarry’s presumed Doris Day wholesomeness. Like Being John Malkovich, Nurse Betty is a movie about image and acting. LaBute successfully constructs a world that can encompass the Martian histrionics of Crispin Glover and the bland snarkiness of Greg Kinnear.
After spending three hours with Betty, Kinnear’s character exclaims that he hasn’t felt so real since he was “with Stella Adler in New York.” But, whether or not Betty sustains her character, the movie fails to maintain its own. The scenario falls apart. Nurse Betty initially suggests that anything is possible; the final burst of bloody confusion and conventional wish-fulfillment makes it clear that nothing is.
Where Nurse Betty lifts its garrulous hitmen from Pulp Fiction, The Way of the Gun is an attitude noir that takes a good deal more. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for scripting The Usual Suspects, this buzzword mantra is stocked with showy, pointless bits of business—beginning with the opening attention-grabber in which a posturing pair of philosophical petty criminals, Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro, precipitate a brawl in a suburban parking lot.
Like Nurse Betty, with which it shares Monument Valley as a backdrop, Way of the Gun is a self-consciously American odyssey. But, as befits a movie that wants to go mano a mano with Tarantino, Peckinpah, and the Coens, it’s obsessed with genealogy. After a ludicrous attempt to become sperm donors, Phillippe and Del Toro conceive the notion of kidnapping the pregnant young woman serving as a criminal multimillionaire’s hired womb. The idea of Juliette Lewis—Ms. Bad Karma—as a surrogate mother is the least of the movie’s abstractions. The initial abduction stops the stillborn show with its gratuitous brutality, absurdly slow getaway, and increasingly desperate Method actors. While the coolly frantic Del Toro gives a performance in search of a character, Phillippe is implacably inert throughout. Phillippe talks like Brando; Del Toro apes the body language. Nevertheless, James Caan steals the movie as a veteran tough guy, rotating his torso around some unseen truss.
Unexpectedly, the initially clumsy exposition improves once the desperadoes head south of the border—the movie accelerating into a plot-driven rondo of convoluted relationships and hairpin power shifts. But Way of the Gun‘s middle act, which includes the best of the film’s three extravagantly choreographed shoot-outs, is dissipated by McQuarrie’s big closer, a cosmic denouement in a Mexican whorehouse. It’s possible that Way of the Gun will garner some wild kudos, but the chief villain’s best line suggests that at least the film is onto itself: “It’s a simple fact of life that anyone who does business with me can’t be trusted.”