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Tag Archives: The Lovers on the Bridge

Leos’ Love Letter

In honor of Valentine’s Day, today’s post concerns one of my favorite cinematic love stories, Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge from 1991.

Leos Carax’s years-in-the-making, instantly legendary The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) was a scandal upon its initial release in France (the production went wildly over budget, becoming the most expensive French movie ever made up to that point) and sharply divided critics as to its merits. Cahiers du Cinema named it one of the ten best films of the year in 1991 but there were plenty of haters who labelled it pretentious and self-indulgent, predictably trotting out the old “style over substance” argument. The film was virtually impossible to see in America for years because no distributor was apparently willing to pay the hefty price tag for North American theatrical or home video rights. By the time I finally caught up to a 35mm print courtesy of Miramax’s belated 1999 release, I had already worn out my bootleg VHS copy from the good folks at Video Search of Miami. Revisiting The Lovers on the Bridge today, I have no qualms about calling it one of the key movies of the 1990s, a tour de force of filmmaking that functions simultaneously as a love letter to the city of Paris, leading lady Juliette Binoche, and the cinema itself. It also contains, thanks to the brilliant cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, some of the most visually stunning passages in the entire history of the medium.

Like all great love stories, the premise is a slender one: Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless, alcoholic, would-be circus performer, meets and falls madly in love with visually impaired street artist Michele (Binoche), loses her when she retreats into the embrace of her wealthy, conservative father (who offers to pay for an operation that will restore her sight), and finds her again in a deliriously uplifting finale straight out of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The love affair is played out on the Pont-Neuf, Paris’ oldest bridge, where the characters live while it is closed for renovations. As the movie’s production fell behind schedule and shooting permits expired, Carax had to resort to filming scenes on a massive replica of the famous bridge that his crew build in the south of France, which caused the budget to skyrocket tremendously. The alternation between real locations and elaborate sets in the finished film is no drawback however; if anything, it heightens the dichotomy between realism and artifice that runs through the entire movie (apparent from the very beginning when professional actor Denis Lavant is seen interacting with real homeless people) and enriches Carax’s potent metaphor for the city-as-a-giant-playground.

Lovers is indeed an outrageously stylized movie but the style, I would argue, is always pressed to the service of revealing something about the emotional lives of the characters. More specifically, I think the film’s greatness lies in its ability to find visual correlatives for the feeling of being in love. In scene after scene, striking camera movement, carefully selected color (dig the yellow!), an ingenious use of locations (whether real or constructed especially for the film) and the choreography of the performers all combine to convey feelings of euphoria or despair, depending upon the mood of the characters. This image-based approach to storytelling caused French critics to initially lump Carax together with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beneix under the umbrella term of “Cinema du Look” in the 1980s. But unlike his contemporaries, whose approach seems more influenced by MTV, Carax’s imagery harks back to the silent cinema as well as the most poetic movies of the early sound era (such as the aforementioned L’atalante), many of which Carax liberally quotes from. In addition to Jean Vigo, his main influence in The Lovers on the Bridge appears to be F.W. Murnau, whose Sunrise similarly attempted to whip up an intense visual frenzy by depicting scenes of urban life in a highly impressionistic and romantic fashion. The city, Murnau and Carax both remind us, can be a place of terror and magic, ugliness and beauty, loneliness and vibrancy, all at the same time. There is therefore no more fitting backdrop for a story revolving around the tumultuous emotions of young love.

Some of the more rhapsodic moments in Lovers: Alex and Michele getting drunk together for the first time, rolling around in the gutter and laughing, surrounded – in a stunning optical illusion – by giant cigarette butts and bottles of alcohol; a tracking shot that follows them moments later as they drunkenly dance across the bridge beneath an elaborate and very real fireworks display while songs belonging to wildly different genres of music (classical, rock, rap, middle-eastern, and even generic French cafe music) boldly segue into one another on the soundtrack; Michele waterskiing down the Seine at night and wiping out dangerously close to a stone wall. (While we expect this type of stunt work from Levant, who was trained as an acrobat and can be seen eating fire and walking up subway walls like Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain elsewhere in the film, it was arguably unconscionable for Carax to ask Binoche, with whom he was romantically involved at the time, to perform her own stunts. She nearly died during the waterskiing wipeout, a shot that made it into the final cut of the film.)

There are impressive moments of visual poetry in some of the subtler, quieter scenes as well. The movie’s third most important character is Hans, an older homeless man from Germany played with great authority by veteran theatrical director Klaus-Michael Grüber. Hans is a father-figure to Alex and he resents Michele’s intrusion upon their lives on the bridge. Hans is hostile toward Michele because he knows that she comes from an upper class background and, unlike them, is homeless by choice – an interloper in their world. However, as time goes by, Hans develops an affection for Michele in spite of himself, a feeling that reaches its apex in a scene where he grants her wish to see a Rembrandt self-portrait in the Louvre. Knowing that Michele’s eyesight is failing more and more every day, Hans helps her to break into the museum in the middle of the night and allows the nearly-blind woman to see the painting by holding a candle only inches away from its surface. According to Carax, this shot could only be achieved when the Louvre security guard who was watching the production relieved himself momentarily to take a leak. Whether that story is true or apocryphal, it reaffirms my impression of the director as someone who is fully committed to going to foolish and even reckless lengths to capture images of astonishing and improbable beauty.

The Lovers on the Bridge is Leos Carax’s third film out of only four total in a career that spans more than a quarter of a century. Holy Motors, his long-awaited fifth movie (and the first since Pola X in 1999), is currently filming. Let’s hope production doesn’t drag on for years.

The Lovers on the Bridge is available on DVD in North America in a serviceable edition from Miramax Home Entertainment but for such a visually stunning film, the image quality leaves much to be desired. An immaculately transferred Blu-ray edition would be very welcome.

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Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

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22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

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21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

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19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

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17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

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Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

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7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

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Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

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Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


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