NYFF '99 ON THE SCENE: The Bad Boy of French Cinema, Leos Carax
by Andrea Meyer
When French director Leos Carax walked into the New York Film Festival press conference for his film “Pola X,” it was clear that he digs his bad-boy image. Dressed in black, with a sullen look on his face, Carax smoked one cigarette after another, while defying the audience to question the film he clearly had no desire to explain or defend.
Based on Herman Melville‘s 1852 novel “Pierre or the Ambiguities,” “Pola X” is the story of a handsome, young novelist (Guillaume Depardieu) with a Noxema pretty fiancée and a Noxema pretty mom (Catherine Deneuve). They wear white and live in a chateau and picnic on luxuriant green hilltops. Just when you think this is all a bit too prissy and clean to have sprung from the loins of the grungy iconoclast responsible for “Lovers on the Bridge” and “Boy Meets Girl,” the plot takes a turn into the dirt. Pierre meets a homeless Eastern European woman who claims to be his half-sister, and together they leave his cushy life for tortured poverty in Paris.
Carax did not want to tell us much about “Pola X.” Although his English was perfect, the words themselves were as enigmatic as the film. Sometimes he refused to respond altogether. With the occasional poignant exception, the director left his audience with little beyond the film itself, which is as moody and over the top as anything else he has made.
Carax’s clipped responses did, however, give us enough clues to piece together a brief background of the film. Carax read “Pierre ou les Ambiguities” for the first time when he was nineteen and was totally blown away. He reread the book every five years or so, and once he had made a couple of films, decided to adapt his favorite book for the screen. With co-writers Lauren Sedofsky and Jean-Paul Fargeau, he wrote a screenplay that set the 19th century action in contemporary France. “The film is very close to the book,” Carax said. “It doesn’t contain the whole book. I didn’t understand the whole book, I never did, but the narrative is very close.”
When someone asked the director to elaborate on the idea of Pierre as imposter, Carax answered, “It is in the book.” He added enigmatically, “This feeling of being an imposter is a thing that I think is at the beginning of making a novel or a film.” As he didn’t seem likely to add anything more, moderator and NYFF selection committee member Robert Sklar took another question. Could Carax comment on the image of the stone in the film? “That’s totally from the book.” How did he choose the pseudonym Leos Carax and what was his real name? “I changed my name when I was thirteen, before I knew I would make films. That’s my answer.” How would he describe the protagonist’s arc or journey? “That’s difficult.” Why were there so many loud sound effects? No comment.
Occasionally, however, a question inspired poignancy and reflection. For example, someone asked why the scene in which Pierre first meets his sister, Isabelle, was so long. He seemed almost hurt by the implied criticism of his film and responded, “In the book, two chapters. Forty-six pages.” He then asked genuinely, “Was it too long? I cut a lot of it. It was longer. It’s only six to seven minutes, maybe eight, pretty fast to change someone’s life.”
Likewise, he seemed to enjoy a question about the explicit sex scene between Pierre and Isabelle. “I had never done a sex scene in my earlier films,” he explained. “I was amazed how simple it was. I was thinking maybe I decided to make movies when I was younger just to film that: a love scene between a brother and a sister.”
There were a few genuine surprises. It would be hard to guess, for example, that the title of the film was really just an acronym for the title of Melville’s book in French: “Pierre Ou Les Ambiguities.” The X is the Roman numeral ten, because it was the tenth draft of the script that Carax shot.
Concrete facts were easier to come by than cinematic insight. Carax admitted, for instance, that the film does not yet have a U.S. distributor. He has, however, met with an undisclosed company that may be interested in distributing not only “Pola X” but also his long-awaited earlier works. As for the future, when asked if he was working on another project, Carax said, “I was, but now I don’t want it anymore, so I’m not.”
Despite his efforts to deny his audience access to his film or his life, the director let slip just enough clues to suggest that he’s actually a pretty interesting guy. For example, when asked about the black and white images that open the film — bombs being dropped on cemeteries — he said, “I was in Sarajevo. I went to a funeral, and when I came back to France, I had a dream that planes were sending bombs on cemeteries. Cemetery after cemetery was being bombed.” Later, when someone wondered what he has been doing in the eight years since he finished his last film, he said glibly, “I went to Hell. It took time to get there and then to get back.” Everyone laughed at his characteristic, cocky avoidance of the question, but maybe he was telling the truth.
[Andrea Meyer is a NY-based freelance writer who’s written for the New York Post, Time Out New York, and The Independent Film & Video Monthly, among other publications.]