Before ‘Holy Motors’: Leos Carax’s grand romantic folly ‘Lovers on the Bridge’

fireworksPrior to the premiere of Holy Motors at Cannes this year, Leos Carax had made just four features in the last 28 years, and yet those four films comprised a formidable body of work: Boy Meets Girl (1984); Mauvais Sang (a.k.a. Bad Blood, ’86); The Lovers on the Bridge (a.k.a. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, ’91); and Pola X (’99). Taken together, the movies chart his progression from charming enfant terrible to maestro of deranged spectacles.

Carax’s third film, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was one of those seemingly accursed movies cherished by cinema history but which prove ruinous to the people actually involved in making them. Scandalously expensive by the standards of the French film industry at the time (almost $30 million), Les Amants became France’s very own Heaven’s Gate, a bomb that bankrupted its producers and studio and met with critical dismissal upon its release. It finally came out in the U.S. in 1999, under the title The Lovers on the Bridge.

The original French theatrical poster, by Juliette Binoche.

The French have their own term for this type of boondoggle: folie de grandeur. The movie’s budget ballooned because of the principal set, a grandiose re-creation in the south of France of the Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, and its entire surrounding neighborhood.

As Les Amants opens, the Pont-Neuf is being renovated for the French Bicentennial celebrations of 1989, only work has been halted and the bridge is closed off to traffic. Living literally among the rubble of the construction project is Alex (Levant), a grimy street performer who ekes out a living twirling a flaming baton and breathing fire for tourists. The scene of Alex doing his routine is one of Carax’s most mesmerizing montages, and Levant, a former acrobat, is remarkable to watch in it.

This being a Carax film, boy must meet girl, and Alex’s world is rocked by the arrival of Michele (Juliette Binoche, sporting an eye-patch), a mentally unstable painter from a far more affluent realm who’s losing her sight to a degenerative eye disease. Michele’s presence on the bridge is like a miracle for Alex. He serves as her guide into a hardscrabble, homeless existence, and as they become lovers they briefly carve out a hermetic little paradise in society’s shadow.

The Swedish DVD...

The movie’s depiction of homelessness is impressively unsentimental. The audience can feel how uncomfortable and bleak life on the bridge is, and as summer gives way to fall in the story the chill is unmistakable. Remarkably, the leads don’t come across as actors slumming it as tramps — both Alex and Michele are pitted, scabby, seemingly dazed from hunger, and ultimately reduced to a glassy-eyed stagger.

Carax grounds the couple in a rank, pitiless reality in order to make the romance all the more extraordinary. In the depths of Paris’ most squalid milieu, his lovers discover a hidden city, their own private, ineffably romantic nighttime world, where they can experience grace, passion, even fleeting salvation. A high point, for them and for the audience, comes one night during the Bicentennial when Alex steals a police boat and takes Michele water-skiing down the Seine, as fireworks cascade over the water. The couple appropriates a public spectacle to attain their own ecstatic release.

The German release...

Similarly, in the defining money shot of Carax’s career (and what a lot of money it must’ve cost), the camera pans to follow Alex and Michele as they dance their way across the rubble-strewn Pont-Neuf, while fireworks provide explosions and pinwheels of color behind them, and the soundtrack segues from Iggy Pop to classical to Gallic hip-hop within the space of 60 seconds or so. No one genre of music can express the emotion of the moment. The shot realizes a delirious vision; Carax can probably be forgiven if he assumed it justified a little profligacy on his part.

The Japanese DVD...

The tension of the movie comes from seeing how long Alex and Michele can preserve their unlikely affair. They’re beset not only by the acutely rendered hardships of weather, disease and poverty, but also by the authorities, who will eventually reclaim the Pont-Neuf. An even bigger threat is the inescapable fact that Michele and Alex come from different worlds. (The bridge has to bear more and more symbolic weight as the film progresses.) Michele may have fled her sophisticated background, but there’s no question she belongs somewhere other than the bridge, whereas it’s hard to imagine anywhere else that Alex could go — and he knows it. Thus their love contains the seeds of its own destruction. The clock is always running out.

Unfortunately, just as Les Amants seems to be building toward a tragic climax, it comes almost nonsensically undone. By his own admission, Carax comes up with scenarios, not fully developed screenplays; the episodic nature of Les Amants makes plain the strengths and flaws of this approach. Carax was clearly drawn to the predicament of the lovers on the bridge, not to figuring out where they should proceed from there. The movie is perfectly attuned to the painful affair it depicts — it doesn’t know how to come to an end. Carax settles for a denouement that feels tacked-on and unconvincing.

Les Amants isn’t all it’s Carax-ed up to be. The viewer is left with a collection of memorable, even unforgettable moments. But moments don’t make a masterpiece.

For more reviews of Leos Carax’s films, click here.

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The Russian DVD... and the Italian movie poster.

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