Pola X, Leos Carax’s free-form imagining of Herman Melville’s Pierre; or the Ambiguities, accomplishes what all successful literary adaptations must: It conveys the emotions we felt when we read the novel. (Pola is an acronym for the book’s title in French; the X stands for the tenth and final draft of the script.) Too simply stated, Pierre is about a young writer who is fated to destruction with his half-sister. Begun by Melville just after he completed Moby-Dick, it’s a dense and despairing dungeon of a book, blooming with the most beautiful night flowers. You read it with a heightened consciousness, because Melville gets at things no one ever attempted before in American literature, about the sorrows and aberrations of the artist’s life.
Carax sexualizes Melville’s meanings, bringing out the incest latent in the novel. Updated from New York to modern-day Paris and Normandy, the narrative seems right at home both in the chateaux on the Seine and in the city warehouses where radical sects split the air with heavy-metal sounds. (I could have done with a little less ear-splitting.) Carax chooses his actors – Guillaume Depardieu (Pierre), Delphine Chuillot, Catherine Deneuve, Katerina Golubeva – as much for the deep resonance of their faces as for their acting. They appear before us as illustrious masks. As he amply demonstrated in his last film, the mesmerizing, interminable Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Carax can be madly self-indulgent; but I never get the feeling he’s showing off just to preen or to get written about in Cahiers du Cinema. He’s an outlaw filmmaker who is interested in making outlaws of us, too.