After he wrote the book which became a household name, Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote one which most people have never even heard of, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Published in 1852, Pierre is the story of (among other things) a struggling young writer and his unhealthy relationship with his half-sister. Both lugubrious and melodramatic, it’s a book that even Melville scholars tend to warn readers away from.
It’s also perfect grist for French writer-director Léos Carax, no stranger to weirdly paced melodrama, whose career as a post-Godard wunderkind was launched by his early films, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Bad Blood (1986) (both of which are to be shown on upcoming DFT Monday nights), and scuttled by the critical and commercial failure of his years-in-the-making Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991). Conceivably, Carax identifies both with the artist-outsider Pierre and with Melville, whose personal obsessions led to a dwindling audience.
In Pola X (the title is an anagram of Pierre, ou les Ambiguïtés, with the X indicating that the screenplay is a 10th draft) Carax stays fairly close to Melville’s narrative while updating and transposing the story to contemporary France. Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gérard) is a moody princeling living on an elaborate Normandy estate with his mother (Catherine Deneuve). The two exchange elliptical small talk (and refer to each other as “brother” and “sister”) while Pierre awaits his upcoming marriage to golden girl Lucie (Delphine Chuillot). This idyllic if slightly sinister tableau is disrupted one night when Pierre, wandering through the literal forest of his unconscious, encounters Isabella (Katerina Golubeva), a wraithlike young woman who, in a long, oddly syntaxed monologue, reveals herself as his hitherto unbeknownst-to-him half-sister.
Unlike icy mom and virginal Lucie, Isabella is a knot of pain and suffering, with her long scraggly hair, drugged-out gaze and with each of her sentences sounding as if it’s riding on her last breath. For Pierre, it’s like discovering life — real life, which you can recognize by how horrible it is — and so he spirits her away to the big city, where she’ll inspire him to write his great novel. They eventually settle into an airplane hangar-sized loft, which they share with a combination cult and avant-garde industrial music band. When Lucie and then Pierre’s cousin and nemesis Thibault (Laurent Lucas) show up, all the pieces are in place for a colorfully tragic end.
The movie’s mode, if you haven’t guessed, is not realistic. Carax has a lively visual imagination tempered by a deadly seriousness which keeps his audacious setups from being exhilarating — he can be arabesque and disjointed, but he’s never playful. And he doesn’t seem to see that Pierre is a bit of a joke, a young artist falling into a black hole of self-regard, and a major fool — a blindness which puts Pola X itself in the category of impressive follies.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.