Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I’ve been reading about the Cannes Film Festival, and the mixed notices garnered by the Opening Night movie, Annette, a musical directed by Leos Carax with songs by Sparks. This made me think of Carax’s great film Les amants du Pont-Neuf, which I saw at the New York Film Festival in 1992. It shoulda been a zeitgeist movie, but for reasons described below, it missed its moment. I’ll take any excuse to remember this film, so here’s another one; this piece was originally published by Film.com in 1999.
Reporting on the 1992 New York Film Festival for Film Comment magazine, I wrote thusly of my favorite movie of the fest, Les amants du Pont-Neuf: “I’m telling myself to see the movie again before I begin mentioning it in the same sentence as Breathless and Celine and Julie Go Boating as a landmark of French cinema. But there it is.”
I didn’t know it would be another seven years before I had the chance to see Les amants again. A variety of factors, including a snarky French distributor and a flaccid New York Times review, conspired to keep Les amants du Pont-Neuf from getting proper U.S. distribution. In 1999, Miramax finally picked up the movie, and here it is, re-titled Lovers on the Bridge, at long last.
Guess what? It’s a landmark of French cinema.
A little background: Les amants du Pont-Neuf was directed by Leos Carax, the young French director of two fascinating, little-seen features, Boy Meets Girl and Bad Blood. For his film about two homeless people finding each other on the Pont-Neuf in Paris, Carax built a near-full-scale replica of the bridge in the South of France, but his beleaguered production suffered all manner of disasters (including a broken leg for leading man Denis Lavant), and shooting was halted more than once. The resulting bloated budget made Les amants an easy target for the French press, and Carax’s bizarre, squalid, lyrical romance was too much for audiences. Carax did not make another film for nearly ten years.
Doesn’t matter. Even if Les amants du Pont-Neuf is not a masterpiece, it is that rare kind of film that makes you think maybe there is hope for movies in the next century, after all. It begins with a horrifying sequence, in which a street person/acrobat named Alex (Lavant) is hit by a car and hauled off to a homeless shelter, which appears to have been shot in an actual shelter with non-actors. This grungy, ultra-real opening sets up the decidedly un-real remainder of the movie, mostly set on the Pont-Neuf, which is closed for reconstruction during the action of the film and thus available to three people as a home: Alex, his trenchcoated mentor (Klaus-Michael Gruber), and an artist named Michele (Juliette Binoche, in a fierce and fearless performance). She is losing her sight due to a mysterious disease, and Alex falls in love with her.
Their despairing, alcoholic, sometimes violent relationship is punctuated by some of the most extraordinary sequences ever put on film. The Bicentennial of the French Revolution is going on in Paris, and in one scene fireworks explode over the city as Michele and Alex dance crazily across the bridge as rockets shoot around them—this is the first of many scenes in which the actors appear to be in actual physical danger. The couple then go water-skiing down the Seine as sparks continue to drizzle down over Paris.
If Carax sometimes seems emotionally incoherent, he is always cinematically articulate. His characters may not be able to talk through what they feel, but the city around them expresses their desperate passions, sometimes in a surrealistic way. This is a fable of love in extremis, pushed as far as it can go, a fairy tale by way of Baudelaire. The ending itself is magical, a kind of feel-good ending, but on Carax’s own terms; it features a Seine barge that seems to have cruised out of Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante, a film that must have been one of Carax’s inspirations. Is Les amants a folly? The answer is yes, gloriously so, and the kind of folly without which the cinema would never steam forward.
July 30, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.