From Marquis de Sade to Gustave Courbet, the French have never been shy to transgressive expression in the arts. Whether it be the perverse and masochistic novels of de Sade or the subversive, unapologetic paintings of Courbet, France has been a hotbed for some of history’s most provocative artists across all mediums. Film is no exception and one movement that emerged by the turn of the 21st century seems to suggest that the spirit of de Sade and Courbet is alive and well. That movement is the New French Extremity, one of France’s most recent, ongoing, and peculiar phenomenons. Whereas decades earlier, Truffaut and Godard aimed to set a precedent with socially-charged themes and a docu-realist style of filmmaking in the French New Wave, the ambitions of the New French Extremity are perhaps less noble. In fact, many writers have contested its status as a “movement” since the term is more of a tenuous categorization. It serves as a descriptor for the influx of morally-objectionable and sensational films to arise in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They were excessively erotic and flagrant in their depictions of nudity, often accompanied by extreme gore as well as misanthropic and nihilistic sentiments. These films were renowned for depicting all-around dismal subject matter, and in a sense shared more in common with the mutually dreary Dogme 95 than any prior French movement.
And yet, the New French Extremity encompassed an incredibly broad stylistic range of filmmakers and films. It included everyone from Claire Denis to Gaspar Noé and while its only unifying factor was that transgressive element of eroticism, many of the New French Extremity’s most prominent films are defined as horror, arthouse, or a mixture of both. As far as that mixture goes, one of the most fascinating films of the New French Extremity comes in the form of Leos Carax’s Pola X — the film in which Carax, an early pioneer of the movement, managed to effortlessly harmonize the horror and avant-garde elements that are emblematic of these films. With that said, Pola X is not a traditional horror film, but it is deeply unnerving on a level that few films are. Every shot, cut, and juxtaposition in this film is destabilizing and delivers an unparalleled sense of unease. It is an adaptation of Herman Melville‘s 1852 novel Pierre, but a loose one at that. This is a disturbed fantasy come to life, a forbidden confession that rings like a cry for help; it is Carax’s deviant manifesto, an ode to self-destruction and a rejection of decency.
At first glance, Pola X is a film that appears to be straight out of a fairy tale: Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) is a young writer who hails from an aristocratic family. The world is his oyster; he lives in a chateau with his mother Marie (Catherine Deneuve), is engaged to his beautiful cousin Lucie (Delphine Chuillot), and is fresh off of writing a best-selling novel. Lucie and her brother Thibault (Laurent Lucas), who is Pierre’s best friend, live in a neighboring chateau and the three are inseparable. Their lawns run wild and the grass is as green as can be, covered by acres of sprinklers. The scenery of the chateau as well as present-day France is stark and elegant, yet possesses an architectural quality and texture that makes the film look like it is set in the 19th century. Every aspect of Pierre’s world is pristine, but one day the veil shatters.
Pierre has these recurring ominous dreams of a mysterious woman. One morning, while dining with Thibault at an outdoors restaurant, he catches a glimpse of a long-haired and disheveled woman — a splitting image of the one in his dreams — stalking him in the distance. This encounter sends Pierre into a state of paranoia and after a second encounter in the woods, Pierre confronts the woman only for her to reveal that she is Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva), the alleged half-sister of Pierre. Following a lengthy and distressing scene in which Isabelle recounts her past as a Bosnian War refugee, Pierre comes to the revelation that she must be the illegitimate child of his diplomat father. In a bizarre and naive leap of faith, Pierre reveals that Isabelle was precisely what he has been waiting for his entire life, and renounces his wealth, family, and fame, intent on sharing Isabelle’s poverty-stricken life, as lovers. Given his circumstances, the plan does not exactly bode well.
The scene in which Isabelle recounts her past is one of particular note; the manner in which Carax constructs the reveal is indicative of Pierre’s descent into ferality. Pierre follows Isabelle as she lures him further and further into the nighttime forest, the claustrophobic camerawork violently spiraling as it fixates on Isabelle whose hair completely conceals her face, as if her true intentions are hidden. Isabelle takes the forefront and Pierre trails behind at a steady pace, the scene cutting and Pierre catching up only once her story concludes and for Pierre to confess his intentions. Like the serpent who deceives Eve into biting the sacred apple that locks her out of the kingdom of Heaven, Pierre takes that forbidden fruit.
Carax sows doubt about the legitimacy of Isabelle’s claims, but whether her identity rings true is irrelevant: she is merely the catalyst. The forbidden fruit that Pierre seeks, and what he has been looking for his entire life, is freedom. Raw innate, unkempt, and unhinged freedom — Pierre’s repressed desire to break away from the confines of his bourgeois life, unshackled by a deplorable need. Carax has a questionable attitude towards free will and so-called true freedom, depicting the notion at its extremes. Pola X, on one hand, acts as a cautionary tale for what true freedom entails on a primal level, yet on the other, emphasizes the inevitability of Pierre’s disposition.
The incestuous aspects of the film are disconcerting, to say the least, and yet it is in tune with the transgressive nature of the New French Extremity, neither is it unfounded for Pierre. Apart from the already unusual cousin marriage, Pierre is alarmingly close with his mother; he refers to her as his sister and constantly walks in on her nude in the bath, to name a few. Pierre’s magnetic attraction to Isabelle may speak on behalf of his subconscious, almost Jungian, desires. In fact, one of the most infamous and disturbing scenes of the film is Pierre and Isabelle’s sex scene, primarily because Carax shoots it as if it were a nightmare — shot in utter darkness, reflecting the prior encounter in the woods. Symbolically, this is the moment in which Pierre completely rids himself of his past identity.
In many ways, Pola X is a film that feels straight off of a page from Lars Von Trier or Thomas Vinterberg, had they rejected the vows of Dogme 95. It functions flawlessly as a follow up to Von Trier’s The Idiots, a film that presents a similar thesis about internal desires and unbound freedom in a civilized society. What differentiates Carax’s film is that he goes the extra mile in depicting the disastrous outcome of such desires. Even then, there is a tragic and hopeless quality to Pierre’s story, all while Carax seems to suggest that the nature of true freedom is a contradiction in and of itself. It is undoubtedly unhinged and provocative in its premise, but remarkably compelling in a way that few films of its ilk are. This may be a cold and nihilistic film, but it is a genuinely thought provoking albeit unnerving experience. Pola X is a boundary-pusher, a transgressive provocateur in the same vein as a Marquis de Sade or Gustave Courbet, and one of the true gems of the New French Extremity.