James Quandt’s concept of the New French Extremity, while striking at its time, has, with age, become somewhat outdated, a number of the films initially categorized as such have proven to be something else entirely. Defined as having a leaning toward the exploitative, the New French Extremity can perhaps best be defined by the works of Walerian Borowczyk while he was living in France, though the last films of his career were released a good decade before Quandt coined the term. With that in mind it seems rather peculiar that Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999) should be considered an early component of the “genre”. What exploitative qualities possessed by Pola X can clearly be seen as being motivated, if not dictated, by Herman Melville’s novel Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities which provided the basis for Carax’s film.
Melville’s novel, published in 1853, provides an early prototype for the psychological portraiture that became one of the fundamental aesthetic concerns of twentieth century novelists as diverse as Malcolm Lowry and Martin Amis. Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities performs as a quasi-gothic rendering of a psychological portrait of the book’s title character, pinpointing a number of concerns regarding identity in all of its many facets in the face of social and political change halfway through the nineteenth century. 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 simply serve to better render Melville’s concepts within a filmic vernacular 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 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, [similar to love scenes in John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and A Woman Under The Influence (1974)]. 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.