In translating Melville’s novel onto film Carax has found his cinematic footing somewhere between Robert Bresson and André Téchiné. What exploitative qualities that exist in Pola X (1999) simply serve to better render Melville’s concepts within film language and do not, in my mind, constitute any fetishistic tendencies on the filmmaker’s part.
The single scene that is clearly informed by exploitation films (shades of Walerian Borowczyk) is the love scene between Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) and his half-sister Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva). The scene’s duration is long, explicit, and features a close-up of actual penetration. Yet, within the context of the larger film, this scene of love-making serves two distinct purposes. The first is to clearly allow the audience time to consider the event they are watching and its ramifications. The second is a dramatization of a psychological anomaly in the film. During this scene neither Pierre’s nor Isabelle’s face can be seen clearly. It’s as though the physical union of these characters in this sexual act is an identity unto itself, with components of each. Prior to this scene, and throughout the film, Pierre makes references to being an “impostor” and to finding his “true self”. What’s intriguing is that these often rhetorical statements are motivated by his half-sister Isabelle. So it seems Carax’s point to make visual Pierre’s statement that because of Isabelle he has “found his true self”, just as surely as Isabelle’s sense of “home” is derived from Pierre’s physical presence.
Another example of what might be construed as an influence from exploitation film could be the scene in which Marie (Catherine Deneuve) dies in a motorcycle crash. The obvious artifice to the sequence, in which it is clear Deneuve is not actually driving the bike, recalls the low-budget effects of Borowczyk but with a self-consciousness towards genre one associates with Luc Moullet’s The Smugglers (1967). The effect of this brief scene, however, is entirely expressionistic, making it akin to the Gothic imagery and language of Melville’s novel, though quite clearly rendered in a post-modern context (and not dissimilar in terms of lighting design to Carax’s Boy Meets Girl). Again Melville is the catalyst for Carax’s stylistic choices, motivating the employment of cinematic tactics associated with exploitation films.
The single most stylized moment in Pola X has scantily anything to do with exploitation film genre mechanics or with the New French Extremity. Not a conventional dream sequence but more of a fantasy interlude is a brief sequence in which Pierre and Isabelle appear naked in a river of blood rushing through a jagged stone ravine. This nightmare speaks metaphorically to the strain of keeping the secret of familial relations experienced by Pierre and Isabelle. There is no other sequence I can think of like this in Carax’s films. Typically moments of fantasy employed to reflect the emotional states of a film’s characters are rooted in the reality of those characters. So Pola X represents the inverse of Carax’s usual aesthetic as exemplified by the fireworks scene in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991).
What separates Carax’s use of exploitation film tactics from a filmmaker such as François Ozon (or perhaps Pascal Laugier) is that Carax uses these devices to articulate character and subtext within precise visuals and not merely to advance plot or shock the film’s audience. What is shocking about Pola X is due to how visceral the fictitious world of the film becomes in the hands of its actors and the powerfully emotive soundtrack produced by Scott Walker. Like Carax’s other films, Pola X fabricates a reality that is only the slightest apart from our own.