Bridge Over Troubled Water
And so, among filmoids, the picture became a legend. Isolated moments from it seemed to crop up in other movies: a scene of Juliette Binoche being lifted to view an old painting, which recurred in The English Patient; a shot of lovers forming themselves into a ship's figurehead, which made its way into Titanic. Apparently, filmmakers were watching The Lovers on the Bridge. Mere enthusiasts could only wait for special screenings, swap rumors and gossip about the film, and pray for a US release.
Miramax Zoë and Martin Scorsese Presents have answered those prayers, seven years after the film's American premiere. The Lovers on the Bridge is opening theatrically in New York and Los Angeles, with further runs to come.
Now, having dutifully brought you up to date, I feel free to abandon the historico-descriptive mode and launch into polemic, as one of the film's partisans. Bear in mind, as you read the following, that I served on the selection committee that brought The Lovers on the Bridge to the New York Film Festival. In a book written in praise of the film folly I called The Lovers on the Bridge the perfection of the form; and in recent months I've shown up in various cities for one-night screenings where, griotlike, I've sung the film's genealogy and praise. I couldn't back off even if Orson Welles were to descend from heaven and anathematize the picture, with Renoir at his right hand and Ozu at his left.
Nor would I want to back off. The Lovers on the Bridge is one of the most splendidly reckless films ever made--the film that might have torn through the mind of Godard's Pierrot le Fou, after love made him paint his face blue and tie sticks of dynamite to his hair.
It is not a film that "tells the story of," even though there is a story of sorts--about Michèle (Binoche), an aspiring artist from a well-to-do family, driven by illness and heartache to live on the street, and Alex (Denis Lavant), the mumbling, skinheaded loner who fixes on her. There is also a third character, an elder-statesman bum called Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber), who helps move things along--but the linking of events, as I've said, is not the film's main concern. While the fuses sizzle near your head, Carax makes a film about orange flames shooting across a black sky; about a subway passage that turns into an inferno; about the thrumming and skittering of a cello sonata, random gunfire, a snowfall out of an old movie musical. The Lovers on the Bridge is about the face of Juliette Binoche, haggard and grimy and intent, with one eye bandaged and the other rolling up into her skull, and the tense, tumbling, doughily muscled body of Denis Lavant, which is always getting shattered or blown apart.
As extreme in its naturalism as it is in fantasy, The Lovers on the Bridge begins almost as a documentary, with footage shot in a homeless shelter outside Paris. Nothing pretty here. You see actual human beings in actual misery. To witness them, stumbling and writhing, is to think that existence is a rapidly sinking rock to which we're chained; "freedom," a few millimeters' slack in our restraints. This is reality, as Carax first provides it for Alex. But then, as the film introduces Michèle and transfers its action to the bridge, Carax begins to envision the world as a more malleable place, where fact yields to emotion. Dreams intrude onto the screen; images shake and distort and overlap; the city itself, that Potemkin illusion, begins to shimmer and de-materialize. On Bastille Day, Alex's longing and Michèle's need for abandonment meet in a climax of drunkenness--at which point, in the great fireworks scene, The Lovers on the Bridge bursts into glory.
Here, like a wandering penitent before the icons of "home," I must fall silent. Description fails, because the central section of The Lovers on the Bridge dwells apart from the realm of language. It's pure essence of movie, the stuff that movies might have been invented to give us. If you tell me that the rest of the film can't live up to these sequences, I'd have to agree. The lovers slide down a long slope from that infatuation--and Carax's eye, which is so unconventional yet unerring in the first part of the film, slides with them, sometimes becoming lax in the second half.
And so what? Have you never burned yourself up for an impossible fling?
"If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." The Lovers on the Bridge is a film by and for the persistent fool--the one who, full of regret, would do everything a second time. It's a mistake, a wreck, an absurd imposture--a priceless gift. Best to accept it with empty hands, as if you were a character in an old Russian tale that someone just made up.