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Melville-based 'POLA X' is fraught with ambiguity

Friday, December 01, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Call me Pierre, not Ishmael, in this great black whale of a film, based loose-as-a-goosely on a Herman Melville novel you never read.

'Pola X'

RATING: R for nudity and sex themes

STARRING: Guillaume Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Chuillot, Laurent Lucas, Katerina Golubeva

DIRECTOR: Leos Carax




Melville and his staggering complexities do the same thing today that they did when I studied him 30 years ago in college: dazzle me and give me a migraine. "Moby-Dick"? A piece of cake to digest and decipher compared to the literary puzzlement that followed it in 1852: "Pierre, or the Ambiguities" -- as obscure as President Franklin Pierce, who materialized the same year.

The title says it all, although French bad-boy director Leos Carax takes 134 minutes to say it even more ambiguously his own way -- starting with the title itself. "POLA" is an acronym of the book's name in French. "X" is for the 10th draft of Carax's script. Which reminds me that George W. Bush was quoted several years ago in a Texas speech as referring to black leaders Martin Luther King and "Malcolm the Tenth."

I do not apologize for such digressions, in the spirit of this beautiful and ridiculous film, which -- evidently in the spirit of the book -- is a kind of monumental digression itself, transported from 19th-century America to 21st-century France:

Beautiful young Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu), a successful author, and his beautiful mother (Catherine Deneuve) live in a beautiful Normandy chateau, lolling about and worshipping each other's beauty to wile away the hours until Pierre's impending marriage to Lucie (Delphine Chuillot). Ah, but our Pierre is a dreamer, his dreams decidedly erotic -- incestuous with la mere, bisexual with cousin Thibault (Laurent Lucas), and namelessly kinky with his haunting, haunted half-sister Isabelle (Katerina Golubeva).

When Pierre and Isabelle finally link up in the conscious rather than subconscious realm, they run off together to Paris to start a new life, taking up residence with a radical sect of musician-terrorists in a warehouse. Now blessed with poverty and the romantic prospect of freezing to death with Isabelle, Pierre is psychically liberated to write his "great book of truth" free of commercial constraints but, to his despair, discovers he has no truths to write, just -- you guessed it ---ambiguities.

I've left out a ton of other bizarre elements and developments. There's enough stuff here to invent and keep a new existential soap opera going for years.

Is it a joke? Has Melville gone from harpoon to lampoon? Yes, in a way. It's half irony, half romantic tragedy and half pre-Freudian sexual discourse. That's three halves, and they don't exactly make a whole or a whole lot of sense.

They do make a wonderful tour-de-force opportunity for Guillaume Depardieu and for us to compare and contrast him with his fabulous father. He's a kinder, gentler, less male, more androgynous chip off Gerard's block. He has inherited Papa's soulfulness if not power as an actor.

Deneuve gets younger every year and is stunning and hypnotic to watch.

Katerina Golubeva as Isabelle is spooky-looking and a lugubrious pain in the butt to watch.

So, frequently, is the movie.

Carax is a little too precocious (and ambiguous) for his own good.

But then, so was Melville.

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