Leos Carax has ended up with one of the most blighted careers in movies. Seventeen years since his first feature, he has managed just three more films; the latest, Pola X, opens here on Friday following its American premiere at last year’s New York Film Festival. The director, who has already seen it fail in France, has no illusions about its American prospects.
“That’ll be hard,” he said without irony when I told him I hoped it would find an audience in New York. I’d tracked Carax down to Riga, in Latvia, where he was showing Pola X at a festival. He’d been in Moscow the previous week, looking for an actress to inspire his next, so-far unscripted film, which he thinks will be shot in English and partly in the States.
Carax, who turns 40 in November, was hailed as the new Godard on the strength of his first two films, Boy Meets Girl (1983) and Mauvais Sang (1986). But then, in 1988, he hubristically embarked on Les Amants du Pont Neuf, building a vast Paris set in a field near Montpellier. Rumored to have cost 160 million French francs, the ecstatic romantic drama was a critical and commercial disaster that put Carax out of action for most of the ’90s. It remains an unsung classic—a paean to pure cinema that quotes Chaplin’s City Lights and Vigo’s L’Atalante (though Carax denied the latter’s influence).
In contrast, Pola X is a threnody of self-pitying, self-destructive romanticism culled from Herman Melville’s corrosive 1852 Gothic satire, Pierre, in which an idealistic young writer becomes besotted with a woman claiming to be his sister. Guillaume Depardieu plays the château-dwelling literary star who takes up with Isabelle, a vagrant who says they have the same father. Played by the heavy-lidded Katerina Golubeva, she’s a refugee from the war in Bosnia and, perhaps, a ghost. He takes her to Paris, where brother and sister have sex and are consumed by the shadows of the past.
A friend gave Carax Melville’s novel when he was 19. “I immediately thought, ‘It’s my book.’ I never really understood it, but that’s one reason I made it. In the ’80s, I could see I was making my films around the idea of ‘the soul sister,’ or ‘soul mate,’ as you say in English. After Les Amants, I thought I wouldn’t make another film, but if I did, I would make this taboo book—I think it’s taboo to adapt a book that’s important to you—though I never thought I’d find the right actors to play Pierre and Isabelle.”
Melville completed Pierre when he was 32, in the wake of Moby-Dick‘s misfire. Thirty-two himself when he began Pola X, Carax naturally balks at the suggestion that Les Amants was his Moby-Dick or that there was any conscious parallel between Pierre—the renegade author who rejects fame and success—and himself. He admits, though, he recognized the parallel before Pola X opened in France. And, sure, there are autobiographical elements in the film, and, no, he’s not saying what they are.
“I never fantasized having incest with my own sisters,” he mused, “but I have a kind of nostalgia for them being everything to me. Isabelle’s a creature. I don’t know who created her—maybe Pierre. You could say that the biggest incest in the film is not between brother and sister but between Pierre and himself, in that they are the same person. She is part of himself, but the part that he’s repressed. He has money, health, and beauty, but he has no experience—and she is experience.”
Pola X is Carax’s first film with a political consciousness (unless one includes the pre-Dogme-style sequence in the homeless shelter in Les Amants). Peripatetic in the ’90s, he traveled to Bosnia several times during the war. “The time after Les Amants was quite difficult,” he said. “I was sick for three years, my producer [Alain Dahan] died of cancer and my assistant of AIDS. But I was invited to Bosnia by some young people who had seen Les Amants on video at a festival during the bombing. So I went for a week in ’94 but stayed two months, then I came back and came back.”
It was meeting Golubeva, whom he’d seen in Sharunas Bartas’s Three Days, and a dream that brought him back to the old idea of adapting Pierre. “I had dreamed of planes dropping bombs on the cemeteries, which is almost true—they were killing the dead in Bosnia, not only living people. They were literally shooting the tombs. I thought Isabelle could come out of one of these bombed tombs like one of the phantoms of the First World War in Abel Gance’s J’Accuse.”
The film opens with footage of carpet bombing, but it is the bravura eight-minute sequence in which Isabelle tells Pierre her story (40 pages long in the novel) as they walk in a forest at night that most chillingly communicates the horror of war and, simultaneously, parental malfeasance. He shot it in a single take in daytime, using a Steadicam, and then digitized it into night. “This scene is the one reason I made the film,” he said.
Carax is a beguiling mixture of cryptic and candid, wounded and philosophical. He wishes he had made more films but doubts now he’ll ever make more than “10 or 12. I’ve had quite a lot of problems with money and production, but the main problem is personal. After each film, I’ve been so disgusted with the whole movie thing that it takes time to find the desire again. I’m not only looking for a sister; I’m looking for a producer.”
He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of working for hire, “but that would take a lot of persuasion from a producer, and they don’t have a lot of persuasion talents, not when it comes to me at least.” He has been offered jobs in America, “but they were either so stupid or needed a real producer to understand who I am and how I function.”
On September 12 through 14, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang. I wondered how Carax now relates to those bold first flourishes, which make up half his filmography. “I’ve never seen one of my films again,” he said. “The paradox I can never explain is, Why am I so disappointed in my films and so angry, and at the same time, why do I have this pretentious intuition that they will survive?”