“Paris can stay in bed.” — last line, The Lovers On The Bridge
There was no chance that Leos Carax’s delirious 1991 opus The Lovers On The Bridge was going to be anything but a total fiasco, because it needed to be a fiasco in order to realize its ambitions. In that way, it’s like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, another grand, crazy, spectacularly indulgent vision that needed to go wrong in order to be right. Coppola needed to go upriver with Captain Willard, and he needed the hassles of Martin Sheen having a heart attack, Dennis Hopper tweaking, Marlon Brando improvising at $1 million a week, and the myriad other tortures dredged up by a production quagmire that lasted 238 days. Could anyone argue that Apocalypse Now would have been nearly the same experience had it been completed on time and on budget? It’s a film indelibly stained by the conditions that brought it into existence.
Heading into The Lovers On The Bridge, critic-turned-filmmaker Carax established himself as a volatile torchbearer for the French New Wave and arguably the most promising director associated with the “cinéma du look,” an ’80s movement that married the slickness of Hollywood filmmaking with a prevailing mood of cool alienation. (Touchstone “cinéma du look” films: Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva and Betty Blue.) Carax broke through with a pair of quick-and-dirty l’amour fou romances, Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), both heavily indebted to the Jean-Luc Godard of Breathless, but invested with a more fanciful spirit. Take my favorite sequence from the latter, where the nimble Denis Lavant expresses his passion for Juliette Binoche to the tune of David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” a moment when real feelings are abstracted into bold, irrepressible fantasy.
Three years in the making, The Lovers On The Bridge—a crude, Miramaxed translation of the more particular French title Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf—doubled down on the flights of fancy in Carax’s first two movies, and wound up being the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate. The thorniest issue was the primary location of the film, Paris’ Pont-Neuf Bridge, a crumbling yet deeply romantic landmark where its two vagrant lovers spend most of their time. Carax and his producers requested three months’ use of the well-trafficked bridge, but the mayor allotted only three weeks, and even that sliver of time was cut short by a freak injury that took lead actor Lavant out of commission. It was resolved that a full-scale replica of the Pont-Neuf (and its outlying backdrop) would be built over a Montpellier lake, but huge cost overruns and hiccups in financing shut down production on several occasions. When the film was finally completed at an estimated $28 million price tag, it was a predictable box-office flop in France in 1991, and it sat in Miramax’s vaults for eight years until the benevolent Martin Scorsese stepped in and helped liberate it under the Miramax Zoë label.
By the time it was given a nominal arthouse release, The Lovers On The Bridge had gained an almost mythical status among hardcore cinephiles, and it turned out to be the rare case where the movie matches the myth. Carax’s high-wire love story is guilty of lapses in judgment and overall coherence, but as with Apocalypse Now, the circumstances of its runaway production are inextricable from its astounding scope and over-the-top setpieces. As with the “Modern Love” sequence in Mauvais Sang—and with the same couple, Lavant and Juliette Binoche—the film constantly seeks some poetic, larger-than-life expression of the tempestuous emotions between two people. If the film has an anxious tone, it’s because the central relationship is poised on the razor’s edge of love and catastrophe, and Carax, a master of doomed romanticism, wouldn’t have it any other way.
As Alex and Michèle, the lovers of the title, Lavant and Binoche have what might be called a meet-ugly. As he stumbles down the middle of a mostly empty street at night, the homeless Alex finally passes out from his standard cocktail of liquor and downers. When Michèle, a bedraggled painter with one eye covered and her vision failing in the other, comes upon Alex, a bus has just run over his ankle, and she assumes he’s dead. Theirs isn’t exactly a love story for the ages, but this peculiar encounter leads to a more substantial relationship, at least in part because they immediately become co-dependent. Alex takes Michèle back to the Pont-Neuf bridge, which he and a cranky older gentleman (Klaus-Michael Grüber) have converted into a personal sanctuary while it remains closed for construction. They sleep in Alex’s filth-lined encampment, making do on the tips he gets as a fire-breathing street performer—an occupation that speaks to his coarse looks and yen for self-immolation.
Alex falls hard for Michèle, but along with love comes the more selfish impulse of possessiveness. Michèle’s deteriorating eyesight naturally draws her closer to him, so when he discovers that a surgery exists to cure her rare condition, he keeps that information to himself. Turns out that Michèle has a past, too, and people desperately looking for her; when Alex sees posters all over the city with her picture on them, he goes on a personal campaign to tear up or set fire to every one. At the same time, there’s no evidence that Michèle feels remotely the same way about him; on the contrary, when the sound of her ex-boyfriend’s cello reverberates through the subway system, she dashes madly through the tunnels to find him. She’s lost in near-darkness, and Alex is determined to keep her from seeing the light.
The money sequence in The Lovers On The Bridge—its reason for existence, really—is a ridiculously extravagant (and extravagantly ridiculous) setpiece that’s done in the same romantic spirit of the “Modern Love” spaz-out in Mauvais Sang, but at a hundred times the scale. Carax recreates the bicentennial Bastille Day celebration as an ecstatic, spontaneous outburst of passion, as Alex and Michèle drunkenly cavort in front of fireworks and firecrackers, with music from Iggy Pop to Public Enemy to Johann Strauss piped in from some magical jukebox in the sky. Carax doesn’t bother labeling the sequence as fantasy, instead allowing it to build upon itself and slip organically from common revelry to out-and-out surrealism. One minute, Alex and Michèle are dancing manically across the Pont-Neuf; the next, Alex is behind the wheel of a speedboat with Michèle behind him on one water ski, sparks shooting out in her wake.
The only problem with the Bastille Day climax is that it arrives less than halfway through the movie, and as a rule, no scene featuring Denis Lavant’s bizarre interpretive dance moves can possibly be topped. (Credit Claire Denis for putting hers at the very end of Beau Travail.) But the long hangover that follows has its fascinations, too, because as this relationship comes crashing back down to earth, reality naturally imposes itself again. That means more manifestations of Alex’s unhealthy possessiveness, and Michèle reconciling herself to the fact that his intense devotion is all she has left. (“When it all goes black soon,” she tells him with a mix of affection and regret, “you’ll be the last image in my head forever.”) As spectacle, The Lovers On The Bridge doesn’t have anywhere to go after the first hour—though a couple of sequences, especially one where Alex sets the posters in a subway tunnel ablaze, are quite striking—but it does grow into a more complicated love story, one that’s still edgy, but a touch more grounded and real.
That’s the thing about crazy love: It either flames out, or it becomes less crazy. The Alex and Michèle that meet again on the reconstructed Pont-Neuf bridge in the snow, now choked with cars and foot traffic, have watched their private refuge go public again. Alex is still pathologically possessive—in fact, he nearly sinks them both in a watery grave—but they share a level of intimacy that they didn’t have before. (The depth of their relationship becomes clearest in the final minutes, via a direct homage to Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante.) The city that they know will always be the quiet, nocturnal one that deposited them on the Pont-Neuf, and the improbable ending finds them back in their own little world, as Paris sleeps.
Next week: Slacker
September 10 & 17: Toronto Film Festival (no column)
September 24: Napoleon Dynamite
November 1: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy