Les amants du Pont-Neuf

(The Lovers on the Bridge, France - 1991)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, Daniel Buain, Klaus-Michael Gruber
Genre: Drama/Romance
Director: Leos Carax
Screenplay: Leos Carax
Cinematography: Jean-Yves Escoffier
Composer: -

Leos Carax's third feature was set to be his big breakthrough. A broad, splashing melodramatic romance starring a firebreathing acrobat and featuring unforgettably filmed scenes of waterskiing and celebrating Bastille Day fireworks on the worlds oldest bridge, one could see this being the biggest French film since Carax's peer Jean Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue even though it stars homeless people and mixes the agony and ecstasy of love as portrayed by a violent personality who now tries to avoid abandonment through self mutilation.

Carax expands the alienated young lovers theme of his own previous Alex features Boy Meets Girl and Bad Blood to the grandest scale, but the trilogies final installment seemed cursed from the outset, including such setbacks as filming being delayed by a year when star Dennis Lavant broke his leg. Juliette Binoche, who was just beginning to make a name for herself when she played a different role in Bad Blood was now a major star, but seemed a given considering she was the director's girlfriend, except she broke up with Carax during the filming. Binoche remained loyal to the project, but more problems arose including Carax being unable to film the Pont Neuf bridge scenes within the 20 day window his permit allowed because Lavant somehow managed to severely injure a tendon in his thumb while tying his shoe. Carax's answer was to build a replica of the bridge and three surrounding buildings in southern France, but this required a substantial budget increase, and filming was on and off over the next few years as financiers came and went. By the time Lovers on the Bridge was finished, the film cost more than 50 times the average French film (granted they are made for less than Hollyplastic spends on paint), which led to distribution problems as the producer desperately scrambled to recoup funds, opting to jack up distribution fees, which ultimately postponed the US release for 8 years.

In the end, Lovers on the Bridge wound up being closer to Carax's Heaven's Gate. As with Michael Cimino's criminally underrated work of art, Lovers is an overblown, excessive, and self indulgent but often brilliant piece of cinema made by a maximalist who may burn money but whose exquisite artistry is so apparent that every penny they were over budget seems to show up on screen. Though such well respected directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Philippe Garrel were quick to praise the film, Martin Scorsese eventually secured it's US release, and the film was relatively popular around the world including finishing as the 34th highest grossing film in France in 1991, Lovers on the Bridge derailed a promising career simply because it cost so much to make, and bottom line trumps all to financial backers. It took 8 years for Carax to release his next film, Pola X, and although once again one of the best films of the year, it didn't garner nearly the attention it deserved, and most of the attention it did receive focused on the unsimulated sex scene, a complete distraction issue.

Carax's work owes a lot to the French new wave, but his primary inspiration in Lovers on the Bridge comes from the silent cinema. He limits the dialogue, conveying the emotions in the less subtle but more poetic manner of expressionist cinema. Carax may not have a lot to say verbally, but he says it all visually. For him, love seems to be an intense and passionate form of madness.

Carax doesn't so much tell a story as fervently create a mythological universe where his homeless lovers display their feelings, which alternate between joy and crisis. His cinema is one of desires and moods: love, violence, possession, and compulsion. Carax conveys this by mixing sugar with dirt, starting off with a cinema verite look at homeless, but switching to a delirious fever dream as a newfound optimism comes into their lives through the newness of being together, the intoxication of this hope eventually transforming into love, with their sudden ecstasy soon being marred by the fear of losing it.

The main characters fell into homelessness through failures that resulted in essentially ceasing just about anything that qualifies as life. Carax is guilty of romanticizing homelessness, but what he's depicting is their reality through their love. As alcohol and drug addiction have a firm grasp on them, this love is quite temporary, but certainly even homeless people are still capable of these moments of happiness when there's suddenly a reason to live.

The couple were self destructive before they met, and their love is often overcome by such impulses, there's an instability to their relationship because Alex (Denis Lavant) can no longer imagine living without Michele (Juliette Binoche), who he fears will return to a regular life, thus he's irrationally possessive. There's also an urgency to their love, and the film in general, especially from Alex's perspective because he has nothing to fall back on. The whole City Lights aspect where The Tramp is afraid the woman won't want him if she regains her eyesight through an unexplained miraculous surgery isn't particularly effective, but Carax is concerned with depicting the rollercoaster of emotions in as spectacular a manner as possible, so he's fine with sacrificing something in the believability department.

Carax is successful at transforming the bridge into a symbolic and metaphoric character. Like Alex & Michele's lives, it's in need of a restoration. We never see any of the construction to fix it despite the signs that note it's closed for reconstruction, but the bridge not on acts as their home base, but transforms itself into a playground. Rather than expressing their interior through their own exterior, Carax uses that of their surroundings.

Carax makes no bones about the influence of Jean Vigo on the cinematic experience he's presenting. It's as if Vigo's newlyweds from L'Atalante took their honeymoon on the bridge rather than the barge. The grouchy old vagrant (Daniel Buain) who supplies Alex with downers and wants Michele off the bridge because he'd prefer to never see another woman, especially someone who looks like his deceased wife, is a version of Michel Simon's character in L'Atalante. However, he isn't as entertaining, nor is he a particularly well utilized third fiddle. The rest is pretty wonderful though, particularly the lovely final segment where the lovers tumble into the water only to be picked up by a sand barge run by a happily married couple meant to evoke Jean & Juliette, and Alex & Michele proceed to walk across the ship in homage. Most importantly, the poetry of the sometimes surreal and fantastic images and the rhythm of the edited are certainly on par with the great master Vigo.

Lovers on the Bridge is nothing if not one of the greatest visual feasts ever committed to celluoid. Carax uses a blue/red color pallette to add to the emotions of his kinetic fantasy where the audience is primarily meant to respond to outside stimulus, both from the surroundings, accentuated by all the cinematic techniques including spacial framing, panoramics, and crane shots. We become used to Alex and Michele's squalor, but the series of disparate close-ups that creates almost a slide show of the horrors of homelessness remains unforgettable. I find Lovers on the Bridge unbelievable and am sometimes annoyed when the joyful but oft dubious romance is emphasized to the point there's no real struggle to survive life on the streets, no worry about where their next meal is coming from, but at least 90% of the films being made strike me as existing in a fantasy world. What's more important is that Leos Carax's work is in that 1% that provide a remarkable cinematic experience. Most films set out to entertain, Carax succeeds in creating ecstasy. There are picture shows, and then there are picture shows.


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