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.
Critical response in France was rapturous; audience response, less so. A year after the Paris opening, judged a box-office failure and still without an American distributor, The Lovers on the Bridge had its US premiere at the 1992 New York Film Festival. Reactions ranged from irritation to ecstasy, sometimes within the same viewer. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that the gorgeous exuberance of the film’s high point was its own excuse for being. He also noted that after this high point, the film still had half its running time to go. Such a notice from the Times will not embolden distributors. The Lovers on the Bridge went unreleased in the United States.
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.