In a bar overlooking the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Leos Carax chain-smokes his way through an otherwise immaculately healthy lunch of mineral water and salmon tartare and contemplates, without great optimism, the prospects for his new movie. "Pola X is not a likeable film," he says. "It's not a nice film. I always knew that. But the critics were very hostile. The public didn't go to see it. It's a whole market thing that escapes me completely."
Carax has good cause to be gloomy. In the 1980s, he was one of France's bright young triumvirate of star directors, along with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix. Their work - Subway, Diva, Betty Blue, The Night is Young, The Big Blue - defined a glossy, stylish brand of movie-making, known as le cinÃ©ma du look. Yet 15 years on, the careers of all three are under a cloud.
Beineix has not produced a feature since the poorly received IP5 in 1992. Besson seems to have relinquished all claims to critical endorsement with English-language films aimed at the commercial market, successfully with The Fifth Element, less so with this year's Joan of Arc. And Carax himself, seen by many as the most talented of the three, has hardly been prolific, with a meagre four features: Boy Meets Girl, The Night Is Young, Les Amants du Pont Neuf and Pola X. The latter was one of the most eagerly awaited competition entries in Cannes last year. But its reception there was vituperative.
The story concerns a young celebrity writer, played by Guillaume Depardieu, who abandons his moneyed lifestyle when confronted with a secret from his family past and drops out into obscurity. One might see a resemblance to the director, who virtually disappeared from the public eye after Les Amants du Pont Neuf was released in 1991. In the arty, tissue-lined French production notes for Pola X, Carax was asked where he had been in the interim. "In hell," came the curt reply.
Yet now Carax, a small, wiry, intense but not unfriendly figure, is talking openly and - by his standards - volubly about his work. "I've never chosen to make few films," he says. "If I could make more, I would. But it takes time, it takes energy and I want to live too." In those nine lost years he has been doing just that. "Writing. Reading. Travelling. Falling sick. Falling in love."
He wrote a book about 200 of his dreams - "mostly nightmares, actually" - then got cold feet about publishing it. He might not have been to hell, but he was in Bosnia four times during the siege of Sarajevo, which probably amounts to much the same: "I felt like a prisoner of war at that time in my life, so I went to see other prisoners," he declares melodramatically. He has been to the Ukraine. He has even just been all the way to London to meet actresses. "I love English girls," he enthuses. "I think they are sexy."
Carax's mother is a New Yorker, and he says his first language was English (which he still speaks fluently). Pola X is based on an American source, an obscure novel by Herman Melville called Pierre, or the Ambiguities. "I thought of making it in New England, but it's too dark a subject for America. And it was so personal I had to do it here in France."
Les Amants du Pont Neuf went spectacularly overbudget after an accident delayed shooting for months, with the director eventually forced to construct an elaborate full-scale replica of Paris's famous bridge in the South of France. At a final cost of an estimated 160 million francs (about £16m), it became known as the French Heaven's Gate. Producers weren't queuing up to back his next movie. "For Pola X, I didn't get any money from France," Carax says flatly. "It was funded by Germany and Japan. I had a French producer, but no money from the state. No TV, no nothing."
Well over 100 films are produced in France annually, a sizeable number of which cross the Channel. This spring and summer, there is one opening in Britain almost every week. "I'm a great partisan of the French cinema," comments Paulo Branco, a producer with dozens of films to his credit, including three (Time Regained, L'Ennui and La Nouvelle Eve) currently on release here. "Conditions are better for directors and producers here than anywhere else in Europe and that allows some important films to be made." But he adds, "it's true that not all of them are of a high standard."
A more caustic view is taken by his fellow producer Patrick Quinet, whose credits include Une Liaison Pornographique (see sidebar). "I get two scripts a week from France and, honestly, every time I feel like I'm reading the same story," he asserts. "The subjects are very classical, as is the narrative structure and rhythm. When you look at the young French cinema, you have the impression that all its points of reference are the old French cinema. It has been homogenised. No one takes risks."
All of which, in Quinet's view, contrasts unfavourably with the quirky films emerging from his native Belgium. "When we make films like Rosetta or Les Convoyeurs Attendent, we're less inhibited," says the producer, whose own acclaimed La Vie en Rose, about a small boy who longs to be a girl, could be adduced as another example. "It's so difficult for us that in a sense we set our sights higher, even if we don't always succeed. Of course the French will say, 'That's not true, it's a real uphill struggle for us'. But their system is still favourable compared to ours. There's a whole series of producers for whom it's too easy."
Despite the plethora of French films arriving here, few have made a major recent impact (the biggest, Time Regained, owed its success in large measure to the Proust mania which seized the British media at the end of last year). There has, however, been a seemingly endless stream of what Derek Elley, Senior Film Critic for Variety, describes as "low-budget relationship movies where everyone sits around drinking coffee and taking their clothes off".
Yet Elley, who constantly views work from a wide range of national cinemas, still reckons French movies more than hold their own. "These films deliver more often than not. They have some of the grit of Northern Europe and the romanceand flash of Southern Europe. It's better than people in bad clothes beating each other up in Balham. There's a natural style to their movies thatwe in Britain don't have."
Where does Carax fits into this picture? For Elley, he's a peripheral figure, "a self-constructed legend living in a vague retro world". Quinet views him more indulgently, as an old-style auteur ill-served by the system. "I don't like Pola X," he says. "It's weaker than Carax's other work. That doesn't matter: it's obviousthat he's someone with enormous talent. Yet he has great problems setting up his films because he's on the margins. It's proof that when you try to do something very bold and personal, then the French funding system isn't there for you."
Meanwhile, Carax continues to brood in his splendid isolation. "I don't see myself as part of a generation," he says. "I don't feel I have anything in common with other French directors." Asked if he likes the films now being made by Juliette Binoche, his former lover and his leading lady in The Night Is Young and Les Amants du Pont Neuf, he briskly dismisses them as "sh--", though he mitigates the insult by adding, "But I think of most films as sh--."
"There are a lot of what I would call personal movies around. Movies that are honest and sincere. But great films are something different. They're about vision." Carax's thin smile is tinged with irony. "It's hard to talk about this without sounding pretentious: 'I have a vision and the others don't.' But people don't see cinema as a challenge any more. They see it as something to go to with friends. Safe sex, safe experience, safe films."