'French cinema, it's an old-boys' club'

Director Leos Carax and actor Guillaume Depardieu have so much in common: a romantic strain, a grudge against the system and a new film, Pola X... Chris Darke wonders if it's a healthy match

It's been almost 10 years since the last film by French director Leos Carax - the budget-busting, amour fou spectacular, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. The film's troubled production history no doubt accounts for the long delay between its release in 1990 and Carax's return with Pola X (see Anthony Quinn's review).

Production on Les Amants was twice halted as budgets were exceeded; the film's start was delayed when the lead actor, Denis Lavant, damaged his wrist; Carax was almost replaced as director and financiers withdrew as the budget spiralled from an initial FFr32m in 1988 to FFr100m by the time the film was wrapped in March 1990. Add to this the death of Alain Dahan who had also produced Carax's previous films Boy Meets Girl (1983) and Mauvais Sang ("The Night Is Young", 1986). When the end product failed to recoup the investment, Carax was virtually blacklisted as an extravagant auteur to rival Josef von Sternberg and Michael Cimino.

So what happened in the intervening years? "I went to the devil," Carax tells me. A small, delicate man looking lost within the folds of his large overcoat, he speaks in a low, throaty murmur and appears as fragile as someone convalescing from a debilitating disease. He calls each shoot "a natural disaster" and admits that, after the experience of Les Amants, he felt nothing but disgust towards filmmaking. He "considered finishing with cinema".

In the 1980s, Leos Carax was French cinema's new wunderkind. His films were seen as antidotes to the glossy ad-man styles of Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, his contemporaries in what was often disparagingly referred to as le cinema du look. Where Besson and Beineix drew on the international image-vernacular of music videos, Carax was a self-taught cinephile. In love with Godard's primary-coloured romanticism, Carax brought to his own films the fetishisation of faces and bodies of silent cinema.

"My first two films were those of someone in love with cinema, a kind of debt of love to those filmmakers who'd inspired me," he concedes. "And all the women I knew, I knew through cinema. All the travelling I did was because of cinema." This was first-person filmmaking with all the resources of a well-funded industry at its disposal. And in the style of Godard's films with Anna Karina, Carax's personal life was inseparable from his filmmaking: Mauvais Sang and Les Amants were extended film-poems to his then-partner, Juliette Binoche. They remain examples of cinema as a beautiful hallucination, both intimate and spectacular.

Pola X, however, might be seen as aversion therapy. A dark and demanding adaptation of Herman Melville's novel of 1852, Pierre; or the Ambiguities, Carax's film brings the novel's 19th-century romanticism into the present-day (Pola is an acronym of the title in French, X marking the 10th draft of the screenplay). Guillaume Depardieu - son of Gérard - plays Pierre who, when the film opens, lives an idyllic haut-bourgeois existence in a Normandy château, all sylvan lawns and ambassadorial interiors. Needless to say, this is not to last. With the arrival of his "sister" Isabelle, Pierre throws aside his privileged life, goes to Paris and falls into an incestuous relationship.

At the New York Film Festival, Carax pronounced Pola X to be his "masterpiece" and today he admits he thinks of it as "my best work but perhaps the least likeable". It's a grandly romantic film but with none of the extravagance of Les Amants. Perhaps what makes it less likeable is the diseased quality of its romanticism that takes in incest, death, war and a skeleton in the family closet.

In some senses, it's a fable about the costs of art and love, with Pierre as an artiste maudit out of his time. What's unsettling is the extent to which both Carax and his lead seem not only willing to subscribe to the myth of the artist as sanctified by suffering, but to live it out, Depardieu in particular. While Carax has pursued and explored the status of auteur maudit with a masochist's tenacity, he is at least aware of the dangers of "self-deception". Guillaume appears doubly damaged by his own self-romanticism.

"He's troubled," a PR assistant warned me prior to my interview with Depardieu, "but what a diva." As I'm waiting, slightly nervously, the previous interviewer emerges looking pale. "Good luck," she whispers. Guillaume is a big man with a rugby-player's frame but none of his father's bulk, and he's evidently in a bad way. Bleary-eyed, slurred of speech, he's got one foot in plaster and leans on a silver-topped cane. Topping up his medication with regular swigs from a stack of beer bottles, he appears supremely uninterested in talking about the film in which he gives such an uninhibited and convincing performance.

How was it working with Carax? "He's precious" is the mumbled response. "Because his sort are rare in this industry. Leos is wild and pitiless. He's full of anger and intelligence." He tails off and proceeds to open a bottle of beer with his teeth. And then, spitting out the bottle-top, adds: "That's enough compliments". What about Carax's reputation as being a difficult director to work with? "I understand people call Leos difficult but they're hypocrites," he snarls. "I can be difficult, too." He brings his cane down on the chair opposite with a resounding thwack. "Fuck 'em, because they need me and my talent." Thwack. This is not going well. But why the anger, I ask? You occupy a privileged position in the industry. "What privileged position?" he demands. "No one wants to shoot with me because they're afraid of me." You don't say? "French cinema - it's an old-boys' club," he sneers. "And I'm the last person who'll have strings pulled for him." Again, but with less conviction, thwack. "Anyway, the cinema's finished. It's no longer cinema but money that matters." The interview over, he asks me to help him off the sofa.

A big, damaged actor meets a little, damaged director and together they make a film about the damage inflicted by confusing art and life. It's clear that neither Carax nor Depardieu feel they fit in with the present climate; Carax dismisses much of contemporary French film as "pandering to the public, wanting to be likeable".

Pola X, for all its faults, feels like risk-taking cinema. But it's also a film that's strangely anomalous. Things have moved on: there's less of a public for this large-scale first-person filmmaking in France; "Pola X was defended by very few in France," Carax admits. If, as Cahiers du cinéma suggests, Pola X is an "exorcism" of his subscription to the myth of auteur romanticism, it remains to be seen if it will take the director another 10 years to dump the maudit mantle. But maybe the damage has already been done.