THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE

(LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF)

Directed and written by Leos Carax

With Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant and Klaus-Michael Grüber

Distributed by Miramax

****


Since I got shut out of the Walter Reade's 1994 screening of LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF, which Miramax has retitled THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE for American consumption, and had to catch up with it on a bootleg video a few months later, the chance to finally see it in on the big screen in commercial release feels like a victory. In the eight years since LOVERS was made, it's acquired a cult reputation in the U.S. through one-off festival screenings and sub rosa video circulation. (Bootlegs of Carax's second film, MAUVAIS SANG, are also available from mail-order sources and several New York video stores.) For once, we can't lay this delay entirely at the feet of cowardly American distributors. At the time of its release, LOVERS was one of the most expensive films ever produced in France, but it turned out to be a commercial disaster. Carax had to wait 8 years to make another film; his latest, POLA X, premiered at Cannes last month to a negative reception. Consequently, the producers of LOVERS tried to recoup some of their losses by charging an enormous sum (at least a million dollars, if the rumors are true) for the American rights. By the time Miramax sprung for it last year, one assumes the sales agents had significantly reduced their demands. If a smaller distributor had acquired it, we wouldn't have had to wait a year for its release, but the Miramachine ocassionally deserves its due. As much as I (and most American cinephiles I know) like to criticize Miramax, they once performed a valuable service by introducing American audiences to Pedro Almodovar, Peter Greenaway and Krzysztof Kieslowski, but when Kieslowski passed away, this auteurist inclination went with him. They've subsequently treated filmmakers as major as Jim Jarmusch, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano and Abbas Kiarostami as if they're not fit to kiss the shoes of the sublime Gwynneth Paltrow. Let's hope they don't fumble the ball for Carax.

Alex (Denis Lavant), a vagrant street performer and fire-breather, makes his "home" on the Pont-Neuf, a decrepit bridge closed to the public for 2 years of repair. He lives there along with Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber), a middle-aged German who gives him drugs, but one day Michele (Juliette Binoche), a painter from a middle-class background who's gradually going blind, turns up. Although Hans resists her presence, insisting that women don't belong on the bridge, Alex and Michele gradually fall in love.

In some respects, it's fitting that I first saw THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE on video. While Jean-Yves Escoffier's gorgeous cinematography doesn't survive on video - especially since a PAL-to-NTSC transfer tends to blur bright colors - Carax's breathtaking set pieces suit the format's possibility for fetishizing fragments of a film. (An acquaintance found it very easy to condense clips from LOVERS and MAUVAIS SANG into a twenty-minute assemblage for his cable show.) Rather than a conventional love story, it's an intensely physical evocation of great passion. While Alex and Michele spend many of their happiest moments dancing or water-skiing, Carax's camera is the most agile dancer here. His centerpiece, an ecstatic 20-minute Bastille Day celebration, is as exciting as any musical number or action scene I've ever seen, and I think it would have every bit as much impact out of context.

Even so, I disagree with those critics who've praised that sequence while complaining that the rest of the film never quite gels. In Europe, Carax has often been grouped together with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beneix as an avatarof the cinema du look, a flashy but hollow style inspired by TV commercials and music videos. (His reputation in the U.S. may actually have benefited from the fact that we've usually wound up seeing his films far outside the period and context in which they were made.) That ghettoization might ring true if LOVERS filled the space between peak moments with wall-to-wall music, action and attitude - check out RUN LOLA RUN, which really does feel like a 90-minute music video, for an example of the cinema du look at its emptiest - but Carax's masterful rhythmic and tonal shifts - his non-naturalist use of sound and editing are particularly impressive - raises it above the painfully hip posturing of films like DIVA & SUBWAY. Its world is full of joy and melancholy.

Robert Bresson used the real Pont-Neuf as a setting for FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER, but Carax reconstructed the bridge and its surroundings on an enormous set - quite convincingly beaten and weathered - in the South of France. This vantage point isolates Alex, Hans and Michele, but it sometimes offers the couple a privileged perspective on the city. The Bastille Day fireworks show - accompanied by a loud, eclectic range of music from passing radios - seems like a private party held for their benefit. (Sparks even land all over the bridge!) The first 20 minutes of THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE suggest a neo-realist film about the homeless; its plot kicks into first gear when Alex takes refuge in a shelter after a car runs over his foot. Carax doesn't evade the squalor of Alex and Michele's lives or the misery around them, but he also suggests that urban life can offer magical possibilities, a vision that couldn't be further from Rudolph Giuliani's Disneyfied Manhattan.

Far from a gratuitous indulgence, the Bastille Day sequence represents Michele's desperate sensory indulgence in the face of complete blindness. This film's mad urgency - John Powers has described it as "too-muchness" - stems from her desire to cram in experience as fast as she can. There's a particularly haunting moment in which she lays down on the sidewalk alongside a crowded disco's narrow window, trying to vicariously absorb the dancers' vitality. Almost every critic who's written about THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE has commented on its romanticism, but Carax is quite willing to show that passion can also bring out cruelty, selfishness and violence. Alex is quite comfortable with Michele's loss of sight, largely because it will make her more dependent on him and possibly because he feels threatened by her skill as a visual artist. After she drugs and robs café patrons, walking off with 2,000 francs, Alex tricks her into throwing the money into the Seine, and he later goes to great lengths to prevent her from hearing about an operation that could restore her sight. Although Carax exalts l'amour fou, he certainly doesn't idealize it.

In THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE, postmodernist irreverence with the limits of style and realism works hand-in-hand with genuine character development and emotional force. The stakes of Alex and Michele's relationship have real - and quite moving - consequences. Consciously or not, subsequent mannerist films like Wong Kar-wai's CHUNG KING EXPRESS & FALLEN ANGELS and Olivier Assayas' IRMA VEP & COLD WATER are kissing cousins to Carax. (As Gavin Smith pointed out in 1994, even Uma Thurman's dance to "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" in PULP FICTION could be a Carax moment.) Real news travels slowly, even in the age of global communication, but at last this glorious "folly" has arrived on our shores.