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.