The Lovers on the Bridge (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Produced by Christian Fechner; directed by Leos Carax; screenplay by Leos Carax; photographed by Jean-Yves Escoffier; art direction by Michel Vandestien; edited by Nelly Quettier; starring Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, and Klaus-Michael Grüber. Blu-ray, 127 min., French dialogue with English subtitles, 1991. A Kino Lorber release.

Chatter about runaway budgets and directorial overreach surrounds Hollywood tent-pole pictures more often than European art films, but Leos Carax’s very European and very artistic third feature, The Lovers on the Bridge—or Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, its more euphonious French title—is exceptional in this way, as in many others. Cinematic quality aside, it’s remembered to this day as a financial flop that stalled its writer-director’s career for the next several years.

The main characters are down and out squatters using Paris’s most venerable bridge as a place to sleep, drink, hang out, and brood while the structure is closed to the public for repairs during France’s bicentennial year of 1989. The bridge wasn’t closed when Carax wanted to shoot there, however, and that’s what started the money troubles. In the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, the New Wave forebears he most resembles, he wanted to ground his fantastic/romantic story in the here and now of everyday reality. This meant doing most of the principal photography on location, switching to a large-scale replica built in southern France, complete with facades of famous storefronts nearby, for nighttime scenes only.

Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche as Alex and Michèle.

When the producers requested three months of ready access to the bridge, however, the municipal authorities responded with an offer of three weeks. Further complications ensued when costar Denis Lavant suffered a freak injury—by all accounts, the astoundingly nimble actor somehow mangled himself while tying a shoe—that scuttled the already tight schedule and necessitated upgrades on the replica to accommodate far more shooting than anticipated. By the time of its Cannes premiere in May 1991, The Lovers on the Bridge was “one of the most notorious and scrutinized productions in the history of the French movie industry,” as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes in a booklet essay accompanying Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition. Quite an outcome for a picture Carax originally thought of shooting with a tiny crew in Super-8 black and white.

The film’s content is as unusual as its production history, starting with Carax’s bold decision to cast his key on-screen collaborators at this period, the athletic Lavant and the gorgeous Juliette Binoche, as physical and psychological misfits whose troubled souls are trapped in bodies as banged up as the bridge they call home. Their names are Alex and Michèle, and they meet by chance when Alex gets run over by a car—his fault for collapsing in a drunken stupor—and Michèle helps get him to a homeless shelter. Before long they’re cohabiting on the Pont-Neuf alongside Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber), a grizzled old clochard who supplies Alex with the downers he can’t do without.

We never get much backstory about Alex, but we can infer things about his past from his acrobatic talents and ability to pick up francs with a sidewalk fire-breathing act. The film reveals more about Michèle, who was raised by a military father, is passionate about art, and has a progressive eye disease that is well on the way to blinding her. You might expect her and Alex to raise each other by their respective bootstraps, but their antisocial tendencies run too deep. Before long they’re robbing café patrons by slipping Alex’s downers into their coffee, and even this sleazy scheme comes to nothing when Michèle clumsily spills their loot into the river.

Juliette Binoche plays Michèle, a painter suffering from a degenerative eye disease.

The plot takes a major twist when Michèle’s father floods the area with posters pleading for her to disclose her whereabouts so a brand-new surgical procedure can repair her deteriorating vision. Terrified of losing her, Alex keeps her from learning about all this, even setting fire to a newspaper van carrying the information, and setting fire to the driver in the process. He goes to prison, Michèle goes into surgery, and they appear to have no future together. That’s when Carax springs a final surprise, precipitating a happy ending that some find ridiculously implausible, others find utterly exhilarating, and others (including me) find both.

Whether or not the box-office prospects of The Lovers on the Bridge were dimmed by tales of its production woes, the film lost money in its initial release and didn’t get an American run until 1999, when the sainted Martin Scorsese persuaded Miramax to take it off the shelf. Since then its reputation has risen steadily, thanks to art-movie aficionados and Carax cultists, and its availability on Blu-ray is more than welcome. This said, I don’t think The Lovers on the Bridge will ever reach the classic status of, say, Godard’s revolutionary Breathless (1960) or Rivette’s dark-toned Paris Belongs to Us (1961), which were clearly among the inspirations for all of Carax’s early films. One factor limiting its popularity, suggested by numerous critics over the years, is its narrative structure, or more precisely, the timing of the visually and emotionally breathtaking set piece—in which Alex and Michèle careen into love, joy, and ecstasy as bicentennial fireworks fill the skies with rapture—that any other filmmaker would have positioned as the thrilling climax, not a midstory interlude so sensational that anything after it is anticlimactic almost by definition.

In the film's spectacular set piece, Alex and Michèle exult in the fireworks display celebrating the bicentennial  of the French Revolution.

I, too, think the film would be more effective as entertainment if it saved the pyrotechnics for the finale, but The Lovers on the Bridge has a subtler agenda, which brings me to the second factor limiting its audience appeal. Partly by design and partly because of production circumstances, The Lovers on the Bridge amounts to a sophisticated essay on the dialectics of actuality and artifice, a theme embedded in everything from the alternation of real and replicated settings (are you ever certain where a given shot was taken?) to specifics like the fancy motorboat and water skis (where did they come from?!) that speed Alex and Michèle along the Seine in the spectacular fireworks scene. On one level, The Lovers on the Bridge is a novelistic chronicle of bittersweet love in the vein of Jean Vigo’s romantic/anarchic L’Atalante (1934) and Jean Cocteau’s excursions into modern mythology. On another level, it has powerful documentary elements, most notably in the unsparingly clinical homeless-shelter sequence and in the visionary scene when Hans spirits Michèle into the Louvre for a clandestine look at her favorite painting (a Rembrandt self-portrait) before her eyesight vanishes for good. But above all The Lovers on the Bridge is a movie, and Carax never lets us forget this, mingling the real and the unreal with abandon.

Which brings me to the tale’s much-debated conclusion. Alex is out of jail, Michèle is out of surgery, they have a long-awaited rendezvous on the Pont-Neuf, and you almost expect a reprise of the fireworks. But then Michèle says she’s not ready for full commitment, sending Alex into such a rage that he heaves her and himself off the bridge and into the waters below—where, instead of struggling and drowning, they impossibly pause for what seems to be a moment of intense spiritual communication. Next thing you know they’re back on the surface, hailing a barge that happens to be going their way, and heading toward what promises to be a glorious tomorrow in a distant destination. Implausible, you say? Preposterous is more like it. But as every cinematic mythmaker from Vigo to Cocteau to Godard has shown, the fates of characters are the storyteller’s to decide, and Carax is in a merciful mood. Alex and Michèle live on, and whether that’s “realistic” is beside the point in this literally fabulous film.

The underwater epiphany shared by Alex and Michèle is illuminated in a brief video essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin included on the Blu-ray release, the only extra apart from a trailer (vintage Miramax hard sell) and Vishnevetsky’s essay. I hope future editions have more supplementary material, since there are so many ways to approach this multifaceted film—as an indispensable link in Carax’s partnerships with Lavant and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, for instance, and as a subtly autobiographical work by a writer/director whose given name was Alexandre Dupont, roughly translatable as Alex of the bridge.

Or maybe it’s not autobiographical at all, since the Greek root “A-lex” means “no language,” an appropriate moniker for the inarticulate characters played by Lavant here and in Carax’s previous pictures, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986). I moderated a Q&A with Leos when The Lovers on the Bridge tested the American waters at the New York Film Festival in 1992 and, personable though he was, he wasn’t exactly forthcoming about personal info. And that’s fine. What matters is that The Lovers on the Bridge is his finest achievement to date—for me, neither Pola X (1999) nor Holy Motors (2012) quite lives up to it, and while I’m crazy about Merde (2008), it’s relatively modest—and I’ve been delighted to revisit The Lovers via Kino’s top-flight Blu-ray edition.

David Sterritt served two terms as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle and chaired the National Society of Film Critics from 2005 to 2015.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 3