Legend has it that Potemkin, burdened by duties and melancholy, once neglected to order the packing up of one of his stage-set villages. The boards remained standing many versts outside Ivanovo in a field cut through by Catherine’s route. Tall stalks of grass–the painted planks’ only neighbors–grew heavy with seed, blanched and bent in the autumn chill, and sank beneath months of snow. When the earth softened again, the facades were still upright, though most of them had tipped on their heels. Houses and storefronts reeled away from one another. Outlines of doors and windows dissolved as paint followed the melt-off’s track.
Now it happened that religious folk from the east came wandering toward Ivanovo. One minute they were passing through untilled fields; the next, they found themselves walking down a main street of drunken, weeping buildings, where the only sounds were the songs of grasshoppers and the chanting of their own hymns. The procession shuffled to a halt. Two dozen penitents, bearing all their belongings in their hands, stared into the mirror of two dozen wooden structures, whose faces were their sole possession. With that, the wanderers came to rest. They dwelt in the road from that day till the last penitent died, living outside homes they could not enter; and never once did they violate this gift by looking behind the facades.
I tell this story because The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) is about to open in the United States. One good legend deserves another.
A famously troubled production, The Lovers on the Bridge acquired an aura of extravagance, madness and doom even before its opening, held in Paris in autumn 1991. Some called the film the most expensive ever produced in France–an inaccurate claim, since two other pictures from the same moment, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh and Claude Berri’s Germinal, cost roughly as much. But Pialat and Berri committed their money to sprawling period dramas with high-art allure. The director of The Lovers on the Bridge, Leos Carax, blew 160 million francs (roughly $28 million) on a romance about bums.
In interviews, Carax said some reasonable things about his choice of subject. He noted that realtors had priced working people out of the heart of Paris; the only people who now live with the fabled sights are the rich and the homeless. If you want to make a contemporary movie that shows the Louvre and the bateaux-mouches and the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance, the honest way to do so is to make your characters bums. Carax also said he wanted to strip a love story to its essentials–to show the people, rather than the telephones and answering machines. So his lovers camped out in the debris of the Pont-Neuf (the bridge was closed for repairs in 1989), living with almost nothing but their feelings for one another.
How did a scheme that was so straightforward, so humble, come to cost a fortune? Carax needed to control his set. To do so, he went to a field outside Montpellier and built his own Pont-Neuf. Roughly full size at its center, the Carax Pont-Neuf tapered off at either end to two-thirds scale, providing forced perspectives toward quais and boulevards lined with Potemkin-style buildings. Now Carax could realize sequences such as the Bastille Day bicentennial, for which he restaged the immense fireworks display as a private show for his lovers. Beneath the bridge, he dug a Seine-like pond, deep enough for the big water-skiing scene.
The first producer died. Filming stopped. Carax broke up with his lover and lead actress, Juliette Binoche. After the release of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, she had become an international star, receiving offers of roles that were far better paid and far less grubby. But out of loyalty to Carax’s vision, she stayed with the film; another producer, the valiant Christian Fechner, stepped in; and despite further interruptions, The Lovers on the Bridge was finally completed, though it took three years to make and ran three times over budget.