LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) written and directed by Leos Carax. Starring Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant and Klaus Michael Grüber. Distributed by Miramax Films and Gaumont, 1991.
HOLY MOTORS (2012) was my first exposure to the French film auteur Leos Carax. I had heard of his earlier POLA X (and the subsequent version that was made for television) but none of his output fell within the radar of this particular film fan. Not until HOLY MOTORS, that is. It hit my top ten list of favorite films during that year and turned me into an immediate fan of Leos Carax as well. So obviously I wanted to check out the dude’s oeuvre. So I picked out LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE because Mark Cousins gave it a shout out in his exhaustive documentary THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY.
The film’s native title is “Les Amants Du Pont Neuf” and references the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris which also serves as its primary setting. And the story behind the production of this flick is the stuff of epic, bat-shit crazy myth making. Initially, LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE would’ve been shot vérité style on an extremely low budget. It then escalated into one of the most expensive films ever made in France. The fault therein rested with the construction of a fake version of the eponymous bridge. Using the actual Pont Neuf (the oldest standing bridge in Paris) throughout was not an option as it would have necessitated closing it off from public use for three months. So the budget ballooned from 6 million francs to something like 70 million due to the set reconstruction alone. Even though the city government allowed Carax to shoot LOVERS on the actual bridge during the day. However, after the film’s lead Denis Lavant broke his finger while tying his shoe (Yep. Not making this up), the insurance related complications forced Carax to move his production to the model version full time.
(Lavant, by the way, seems to be Carax’s male muse as he appears in almost all of his movies including the short segment he directed for 2008’s TOKYO. Levant also delivered an amazing multi-performance in HOLY MOTORS)
In other words LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE was Leos Carax’s FITZCARRALDO. Where, in the service of verisimilitude, the construction of the fake Pont Neuf was tantamount to Herzog’s dragging an actual showboat over a mountain for his film.
But what of the film itself? Like HOLY MOTORS, LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE is in love with cinema. And it’s odd in how it wasn’t shot with the kind of aspect ratio that could do justice to the cinematography utilized in this film. Maybe it had something to do with Carax’s original idea to shoot handheld and on 8 mm. That it was intended to be a small picture. And the film does start off in a pseudo, docu-drama way. Alex, a drunk, homeless man, collapses in the middle of a Paris street only to have a hit and run vehicle drive over then break his leg. Eventually he is dragged to a shelter of sorts where he is given medical care, food and a chance to recover from his injury. During this entire sequence, we are introduced to what must have been extras made up of real, homeless people some of whom are obviously suffering from various forms of mental illness. It is implied that Alex is no exception: he appears to have a death wish which is tied into his fixation on returning to his “home,” the aforementioned Pont Neuf. Once Alex escapes the shelter and returns to his beloved bridge, Carax changes the scope from a vérité peek into the world of the Parisian homeless to an overt, almost lavish fantasy take on the romantic melodrama. The fake Pont Neuf is an outstanding set! During the day it looks like the real thing what with how it authentically crosses the Seine with the city surrounding it. But during the night Carax films it as a magical place, suitable for the tragic romance that follows.
The plot of the film coincides with the 1989 French Bicentennial, an event that, well, was the equivalent of our own Bicentennial of 1976-1977. This means there are a lot of celebrations serving as the film’s backdrop. This also explains why the bridge itself has been shut down for a historical restoration. And how it became a home to not just Alex but an older tramp character serving as a sort of a guardian-mentor figure. Threatening their dynamic is Michéle (Juliette Binoche), a down-on-her-luck artist who is slowly going blind. She imposes herself on their existence. The older tramp wants her gone. But Alex immediately falls in love with her.
LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE is a throwback to the kind of potboilers made by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s. But instead of setting his proto soap opera in the American suburbs (and using middle to upper class tropes as characters), Carax fills his film with mentally unstable homeless people who strive to survive with their heads barely treading above water. But the melodramatic aspects are still there: it turns out there might be a cure for Michéle’s blindness but Alex selfishly shields her from this intel because he wants her for himself. The film itself offers two conclusions – one tragic followed by another that is somewhat more uplifting. But even that is open for interpretation as Carax plays with the concept of false memory and the fine line between fantasy and reality. And it is a beautiful film. Two sequences really standout. To earn some extra cash, Alex indulges in a form of fire breathing street performance. And the combination of Lavant’s performance with the cinematography makes it a sight to behold. It’s frenetic, exhaustive and exhilarating. Lavant rushes from one point to another while spinning his body around and drunkenly spitting flames. It’s luscious and scary at the same time.
The second sequence feels lifted from what could have been a possible musical conceptualization that never came to be. Both Michéle and Alex indulge in an improvised dance on the bridge while Paris explodes with music and fireworks in the background. And this is displayed in a single take, the camera tracking the couple as they adapt and re-adapt their choreography to each change in the orchestration. It’s fascinating to watch: the actors are clearly striving to find that balance of the amateur/professional. This is especially interesting when you realize that both Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant are trained dancers/acrobats in their own right.
Speaking of which, both Binoche and Lavant are fantastic in this as is Klaus Michael Grüber who plays the third wheel. Of the three, Grüber has the more interesting arc as he grows from resistant-to-change, embittered old man to something more sympathetic (and ultimately more sympathetic to Binoche), the kind of man who has more just cause in conveying his world view than we were initially led to believe.
I highly recommend checking out LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE as it is currently accessible via Netflix streaming. And I could wax on over the moments where I’d personally question whether what we’re witnessing is truth or fantasy. And I really, really would love to get into film analysis-interpretation territory over whether the lovers actually overcome their obstacles and find true happiness. But to do so would require some serious spoilage on my part. So this is what I recommend instead. Please, please watch this movie. Then get back to me in the comments underneath this piece or respond to my thread in our Facebook group because I would love to hear your thoughts on LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE.