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Latest pair from France span film spectrum

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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.

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