THE LOVERS OF PONT-NEUF (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) A
France (125 mi) 1991 d: Léos Carax
Only recently released, seven years in the making, the film has taken on legendary status for a multitude of reasons, long considered one of the best of the decade, yet never seen. The Pont-Neuf bridge crossing over the Seine River is one of the most beloved historical landmarks in Paris, but based on Carax’s passion for certain kinds of shots, and the length of time needed for the production, Carax decided he couldn’t shoot there, and instead erected in the South of France a two-thirds replica of the famous bridge and the neighborhood surrounding it. The production was halted several times, but resumed because of the interest of the star, Juliette Binoche, who was Carax’s lover at the time. The whole thing took three years and ended up costing $28 million, the most expensive French production in history, but a mere pittance by U.S. standards, for which Carax risked his career to realize his vision. Having now seen the film, one would have to say it was well worth the risk, as it blends the authentic with the fantastic, mixing documentary style naturalism with exaggerated film extravagance to create a great urban expressionist fantasy. Yet despite the extraordinary style of the film, much of it realized by the superb camera of Jean-Yves Escoffier, the subject matter matches the visual intensity, using the city’s physical characteristics to poetically reflect the consciousness of its characters.
Opening with a documentary portrait of the homeless in Paris, then centering on two homeless lovers who mentally and physically are a wreck to look at, they live on a dilapidated bridge that is under construction. The woman, Michèle (Juliette Binoche), is going blind and wears a patch over one eye, while the man, Alex (Denis Lavant), a former circus performer walks with a limp, as we are witness to a car running over his leg early in the film. Both appear wretched and filthy, like weary decrepit souls living on the outer fringes of the world, so the story delves into what’s inside and cannot be seen, their love story evolving into an incredibly rich fantasy life, culminating in the most unimaginably spectacular fireworks display, the sky ablaze with explosions bursting over the lovers on the bridge, both delirious with joy, unable to keep their bodies from dancing under this deluge of delight, continuing the fireworks fantasia by water skiing down the River Seine, explosions like birthday candles and sparklers bursting all around them, bathing them both in streams of light, a wonderfully powerful and ecstatic vision from such tragically bleak and battered lives.
The film is reminiscent of another French film yet to be made, Olivier Assayas’s COLD WATER (1994), which is sort of a teen version of delinquents on the run searching through unimaginable depths of their souls for love and salvation, featuring a brilliant bonfire scene. There’s a tugging reminder of Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (1931), and the ending, when both rekindle the love in their hearts in an underwater scene pays homage to Jean Vigo’s underwater love fantasy sequence in L'Atalante (1934), using a similar barge down the river. Unfortunately, the commercial epic TITANIC (1997) also ripped off what otherwise would be one of the more memorable images of the film, the two lovers in each others arms on the bow of the barge. This mental reference to commercialism is an unwelcome reminder to how much imagery is literally stolen in art, a maddening thought that unfortunately comes during the very climax of this film.
Another disturbing thought that continuously haunts the viewer afterwards is the reprehensible behavior of Alex, the manipulating and conniving male lover in the film, certainly a tortured soul in his own right. It is impossible not to be reminded of that, where one realizes these are homeless people who live on the verge of the irrational, a separate universe from our own, but it turns out the coldest, bleakest, most hideous aspect of the film is his purposeful act to keep her blind, to keep her helpless and homeless, to maintain her need for him at all costs, no matter the price. One can’t help but think of the cliché, love is blind, I would do anything for love, but this is such a typical, self-serving act of male misogyny on such a high order that it is impossible not to shiver with disgust. One must ask themselves, what is that doing in this film? And we’re left to believe that urban homelessness on the deteriorating bridge stands for the state of moral decay, the crumbling of what was once the pillars, the foundation of society, signs of a deteriorating moral order that leaves us with the Neanderthal cave man who has always been there, but has now disguised himself in civilization with clean pants and a close shave. Leave it to the French to describe: woe is me, what a weary state is man. Despite the fact the bridge can be rebuilt, the love rekindled, the homelessness and decay remain, even if it’s not seen. It’s almost as if Carax is saying, only in your imaginations can you be free, as the world and the people in it care nothing about you. And we are left with this troublesome thought at the end of this hauntingly intense and beautiful film rather than caught up in the rapture of romance, quite a bleak contrast from the wondrous optimism of the Vigo film.