The Lovers on the Bridge

 (Leos Carax, France, 1991) 125 minutes


Director: Leos Carax
Producer: Christian Fechner
Screenplay: Leos Carax
Cinematography: Jean-Yves Escoffier
Art Director: Michel Vandestien
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Sound: Henri Morelle, Laurent Levy
Denis Lavant: Alex
Juliette Binoche: Michele
Klaus-Michael Grubeer: Hans
Daniel Buain: Clochard's Friend
Marion Statens: Marion
Chrichan Larson: Julien

Reviews and notes

1991 Sarasota (Florida)
1992 Berlin, Toronto, New York
1993 Wellington

This young writer-director's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Lovers on the Bridge) is, on the surface, familiarly misanthropic - the story of a mentally disturbed fire-eater (Denis Lavant) and a half-blind painter (Juliette Binoche) who pitch camp on a famous Paris bridge that is closed for repairs. These lovers - like their movie - may seem homeless and hopeless, but Carax vitalizes every frame with bleak romanticism and prodigious technique. This is thrilling filmmaking - an intellectual equivalent to Hollywwod's special-effects legerdemain. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was the best new film at Sarasota.
- Richard Corliss, Time, 2 December 1991.

Alex (Denis Lavant) is a sad young wino and vagrant with the kind of lopsided, expressionless face that suggests he might be simple-minded. He lives on the Pont Neuf, the oldest and most beautiful bridge in Paris, which has become a secret home to clochards, or bums, while closed for extensive repairs. From time to time he wanders out into the world of the committed to make a few francs by giving sidewalk fire-eating shows.

Michele (Juliette Binoche), who is going blind, is a street artist and, like Alex, determinedly homeless. One day she makes her way to the Pont Neuf and settles in with her bags, boxes and portfolio of sketches. Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber), the elderly, self-appointed guardian of the bridge's clochards, resents Michele's intrusion. Alex falls hopelessly in love with her.

The story of their affair, Les Amants du Pont Neuf ("Lovers of the Pont Neuf"), written and directed by Leos Carax, must be one of the most extravagant and delirious follies perpetrated on French soil since Marie-Antoinette played the milkmaid at the Petit Trianon. Never has so much money been spent so heedlessly at the whim of so few.

For pure cockeyed romanticism, you have to go back to Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg to match Mr. Carax's film. Yet its romance, which is actually a sentimental melange of realism and surrealism, is no match for the film's architecture. Les Amants du Pont Neuf is not a musical, but if it were, it would be the kind you would leave, as Abel Green of Variety once said, humming the sets.

To make this huge plywood cream puff of a movie, Mr. Carax and Michel Vandestien, his art director, rebuilt a sizable portion of the city outside Paris. In the middle of farmland they constructed the Pont Neuf, the familiar facades along the 14th-century quays on the Left Bank, the Samaritaine department store on the Right Bank, and that portion of the Ile de la Cite, in the middle of the Seine, where the bridge crosses the island to set off the Square of the Vert Gallant, the garden at the island's western tip dominated by the equestrian statue of Henri IV.

As achievements in art direction go, this faux Paris outranks the ancient Rome built for The Fall of the Roman Empire, the Moscow for Doctor Zhivago, the Atlanta for Gone With the Wind and all of the planet Mars for Total Recall. Though it doesn't look quite real, being rather emptier than is the real Paris in summer, it looks real enough to match occasional shots of the original, and it perfectly suits the film's elaborately stylized fancies.

It also allows Mr. Carax to stage a dazzling sound-and-light show that is pretty much the climax of the film, if a long time before the film finds its fey way to the end.

The occasion is the grand finale of the celebrations marking the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille. As magnificent skyrockets explode over Paris, Alex and Michele dance in wine-soaked ecstasy on the bridge and then climb onto the rump of Henry IV's great bronze horse to fire a pistol into the air. Later Alex is at the wheel of a stolen speedboat while Michele water-skis behind, amid a waterfall-like cascade of silvery sparklers on either side of the Seine. Such coups de cinema justify themselves.

This is just as well, since the tale at the center of the film is not easy to stomach unless you have a high tolerance for whimsy. Poor Michele, who has run away from an upper-middle-class home because of her impending blindness, finds a few weeks of escape in the company of the adoring Alex. They make some money by scamming unsuspecting men sitting alone at sidewalk cafes, which allows them to have a brief holiday at the seashore.

Life intervenes in a manner too arch to mention. Michele goes back to her home in St. Cloud. Alex gets into a scrape with the law. Years pass. More should not be revealed, except that at the end the film introduces a fine old Seine barge that suggests the one in Jean Vigo's romantic classic L'Atalante.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, 6 October 1992.

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