Movies from France have been flourishing on American screens, with more French productions and coproductions playing between January and June than in all of 1999, according to Unifrance, which promotes French films around the world.
Two more arrive today, representing opposite poles of the cinema spectrum.
"Pola X," directed by Leos Carax, is so aggressively offbeat that even art-film audiences may find it daunting. "It All Starts Today," directed by Bertrand Tavernier, tells a story of children and grown-ups that should have near-universal appeal.
Carax's film is based on Herman Melville's novel "Pierre, or, the Ambiguities," published in 1852. This explains the movie's name: "Pola" is an acronym for the book's French title ("Pierre, ou, les ambiguits") and the "X" tells us that Carax wrote 10 drafts of the screenplay before rolling his cameras.
Like the novel, Pola X tells the dark-toned tale of a young man (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Grard Depardieu) whose comfortable life is jolted when he meets a half-sister he never knew about. Leaving his devoted mother (Catherine Deneuve) and attractive fiance, he takes his sibling to the big city and begins writing a book meant to uncover the secrets of his increasingly confused soul.
Carax updates the story in spirit as well as time - where the novel gives us an eccentric theologian, for instance, the movie gives us a bizarre cult - and adds a sexual explicitness that would have been unthinkable in Melville's day.
Melville is currently in style with French filmmakers. Claire Denis's drama "Beau Travail," based on the classic "Billy Budd: Foretopman," is one of the best recent movies from France or anywhere else. But the delirious "Pierre" was a disaster for Melville, whose desire to translate the heart's deepest ambiguities into a series of gothic, psychological adventures struck readers as a misguided effort that the writer of "Moby-Dick" should never have attempted.
"Pola X" has received a similarly skeptical response. Carax is used to controversy - his greatest film, "The Lovers on the Bridge," earned both applause and catcalls at its Cannes premire nine years ago -but even sympathetic critics (like me) have acknowledged that the new picture takes on far more than it's prepared to handle. Its hyperactive visual style is a strained equivalent for Melville's explosively romantic prose, and while Depardieu certainly looks right as Pierre, his acting seems derivative and uninspired.
This said, it must be added that "Pola X" makes up in courage what it lacks in common sense. Moviegoers with a sense of adventure (plus a tolerance for graphic sex) will find much to ponder. Those who want to explore Carax's work further will be pleased to learn that his first two features are also coming to the United States: the 1984 drama "Boy Meets Girl," about the ill-starred relationship of a young couple, and the 1986 fantasy "Bad Blood (Mauvais Sang)," about crooks, lovers, and a medical potion. Both are inventive excursions recalling the New Wave movement that revolutionized French film in the '60s.
Tavernier is a different kind of director, taking a more humanistic approach during his quarter-century of filmmaking. It All Starts Today continues this tradition with its hard-hitting story of a provincial kindergarten teacher who risks his career by defying a failing education system. The acting is intense, the story is vivid, and the theme is urgent: Even societies that pride themselves on compassionate policies have underprivileged children in their midsts, and nobody should rest easily when their welfare is in jeopardy.
*These films are not rated. 'Pola X,' 'Boy Meets Girl,' and 'Bad Blood' contain strong sexual material. 'It All Starts Today' contains physical and emotional suffering.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society