The Lovers on the Bridge
1991, R, 131 min. Directed by Léos Carax. Starring Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, Klaus-Michael Grüber.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 26, 1999
Even though this French movie was three years in the making, it has taken nearly three times that long for the film to find American distribution (under the auspices of Martin Scorsese and Zoë, the French distribution arm of Miramax -- the same folks who released Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour a few years back). Often cited as one of the greatest films not seen in America, Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont Neuf) has been lauded by various critics' groups, and an entire issue of Les Cahiers du Cinema was devoted to the film's analysis. First released in France in 1991, Carax's movie is a stridently anti-romantic romance. His lovers live a hand-to-mouth existence, living in the wreckage of Paris' oldest bridge while it undergoes reconstruction. (Carax's production team built a set that amazingly re-creates the appearance of the bridge.) Juliette Binoche plays Michèle, a half-blind artist who wanders the streets with her Abyssinian cat, a sketchpad, and a head full of disturbing memories. Lavant plays Alex, a street performer and wino who makes the crumbling Parisian landmark his home. The movie is fascinating because of the contradictions it embraces. It is wildly extravagant -- most of the film's budget was no doubt spent on the bridge re-creation and a spectacular sequence of exploding fireworks. For all its visual panache, the story remains resolutely gritty and emotionally cautious. These lovers are tentative with each other at first, but then dissolve into a world that seems to exist for them alone. Made before Binoche achieved Oscar fame for her nursemaid role in The English Patient, Lovers on the Bridge is the kind of film that allows the actress to show what she is really capable of. Her half-revealed Michèle is mesmerizing to watch. Although Carax has created a compelling study, he nevertheless has no clear idea of how to resolve it. The latter portions of the movie dissolve into a wintry mush as he tries to append some plot onto these characters. The film's final shot may remind viewers of the lovers on James Cameron's Titanic, but the visual homage is really to Jean Vigo's romantic classic L'Atalante. Much like Vigo, Carax has immersed his lovers in a fabulously romantic tale but requires that they live within the stark confines of a terribly unromantic world.