An early scene lays to rest any lingering doubts that French provocateur Leos Carax might feel some connection with the beleaguered hero in Pola X, his wildly uneven adaptation of Herman Melville's professionally disastrous 1852 novel Pierre, Or The Ambiguities. In it, restless young author Guillaume Depardieu, anxious to bring new maturity to his work, scans the text of his latest opus on his word processor. The two phrases that stand out—"the mad recklessness" and "a young irreversible love"—pretty well sum up Carax's three previous features, epitomized by 1991's The Lovers On The Bridge, an intoxicating devil-may-care romance that was also a notorious box-office flop. Carax's subsequent years as a pariah on the French film scene give a rancorous edge to Pola X, but his own aspirations to maturity fall well short of his grasp. Alternately glorious and baffling, the film is a Carax-style mess, a self-indulgent and borderline-incoherent melodrama redeemed in part by inspired flashes of style and a couple of magnificent setpieces. The story opens with Depardieu beginning to reject his staid life of privilege in an enormous Normandy estate, where he lives with controlling mother Catherine Deneuve while romancing beautiful aristocrat Delphine Chuillot. When a mysterious dark-haired woman (Yekaterina Golubyova) appears to him first in a dream, then later in the waking world claiming to be his long-lost half-sister, Depardieu runs off with her to the squalid Paris streets. Reportedly shorn of 45 minutes from its original three-hour cut, Pola X shows signs of excessive trimming: Important characters are never properly introduced, others drop out of sight, and the central relationship lacks emotional clarity. As a piece of storytelling, the film is a failure, but Carax's incorrigible passion and visual flair leave a few indelible marks. From a bravura sequence through a dark forest, when Golubyova slowly recounts her anguished life story, to a long shot of Deneuve careening desperately down the road on a motorcycle, Pola X combats bouts of tedium with grand fits of inspiration. Whatever his other deficiencies, it can never be said that Carax's films are easily forgotten.
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