"Lovers on the Bridge"

French filmmaker Lios Carax romanticizes the sleaze and squalor of Paris street life.


Charles Taylor
June 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Lios Carax is nothing if not ambitious. He's trying to
place himself in a lineage with the two great Jeans of French cinema, Renoir
and Vigo. He wants "The Lovers on the Bridge" to be a defining work of
doomed romantic fatalism, the mood of many of the most famous French
films of the '30s. And he also appears to be trying to evoke the mixture of
sleaze and enchantment that characterized the work of the great Hungarian
photographer Brassao in his books "Paris By Night" and "The Secret Paris of the '30s."
Some movies are filigreed with poetic conceits. Carax's "The Lovers on
the Bridge" is nothing but poetic conceits. Pare them away and there's
nothing left underneath. Carax appears to have made the movie under the influence of
pixie dust and rotgut. He has a woozy head and artfully placed dirt under his fingernails. The movie is what might result if you lavished money on a film student and told him to
adapt a Bukowski short story in the style of a third-rate imitator of Jacques Demy.

Nuts as it is, "The Lovers on the Bridge" is also somewhat legendary. The
movie debuted in France in 1991, though it is only now getting released here
under the auspices of Martin Scorsese through the Miramax division Zok. It had a
famously troubled production that stretched the shooting schedule and sent the budget
skyward (according to Dave Kehr's piece in the June 27 edition of the New York Times,
"The Lovers on the Bridge" cost what was then 56 times the cost of the average French film). At one point, when delays caused Carax's permit to
shoot on the Pont-Neuf to expire, he built a replica of the entire bridge
(including the facade of the Samaritaine department store on the Right Bank).

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That decision is as revealing as anything about Carax's methods. Renoir
(and the new wave filmmakers who were his spiritual children) poeticized
the world around them. (Think of the moment in "Breathless" when
Godard's camera just happens to catch the instant at twilight when the
lights along the Champs-Elysses come on.) Carax, on the other hand,
re-creates the world as a toy for his romantic/philosophical/cinematic
musings. There's nothing wrong with dealing in artifice -- if you don't get lost in the ether. And a filmmaker who recreates the entire Pont-Neuf is already breathing pretty thin air.

There's no denying that some of his images
are exquisite, but they aren't tied to anything narratively or emotionally. "I
don't really write scripts," Carax told Kehr. "I make notes, and then, when we're at the point of finding the money, I pretend to write a scenario."
That said, do we have to pretend that his films are about anything more than
his second-hand image-mongering?

In film critics' circles, Carax has, for some
time, been well on his way to assuming the mantle of doomed, poetic genius. Here's critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in Film Comment: "A delirious and lyrical form of
nonnarrative consisting of cascading and overlapping poetic conceits,
explosions of feeling and pure sensation." In other words, don't expect
much in the way of story or character. Which would be fine if Carax had chosen to make abstract films. About halfway through "The Lovers on the Bridge," I
remembered that the only things I recalled from Carax's previous film "Bad
Blood" were fragments: some silent black-and-white photography of Juliette
Binoche; a shot of the bare branches of overhanging trees seen from the
point of view of a dying man lying in the back seat of a speeding
convertible; and one moment when Michel Piccoli tenderly peels back
Binoche's glove to kiss her hand. And, unfortunately, I remembered the
simian mug of Denis Lavant, the singularly unappealing presence whom
Carax has again -- disastrously -- cast as his romantic lead.

Lavant, his head shaved, his overhanging brow more prominent than ever, plays Alex, a homeless
alcoholic fire eater (I swear I'm not making this up) who lives on the
Pont-Neuf, which is closed for France's bicentennial renovations. Binoche,
dirtied up and sullen in the manner of actors who think wiping off the
makeup constitutes taking a risk, plays Michele, an artist who has taken to
the streets since discovering she is going blind. Discovering each other, Alex and Michele commence their l'amour fou of the gutter.

That setup is so ripely melodramatic that you wish Carax would dive into it
and transcend his own gush (in somewhat the way Jean-Jacques Beineix
manages to make "Betty Blue" a hip, risqué Douglas Sirk movie). But for all
his visual excess he stays curiously on the outside of his love story. We
don't feel any of Alex's desperation when he begins tearing down the "Missing" posters with Michele's picture that begin popping up on the
streets and in the Metro (although to be fair, part of that is the fault of Lavant, who
offers nothing to the camera). This act just seems repellently selfish.

One reason may be that Carax has encouraged Lavant and Binoche to indulge
in unmediated Cassavetes-style acting, where the actors scream and laugh
and emote to arrive at the "truth" of a scene. Binoche, in particular, gives a
mannered, utterly inauthentic performance that I would have thought her
incapable of. That acting style destroys one rather imaginative scene where Alex and
Michele get drunk and the camera pans up to show them lying in their
delirium among giant wine bottles.

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At times, Carax seems to want an unvarnished view of the dirt and squalor of street life, as in the beginning, when Alex is picked up the cops and taken to a shelter where the director
shows us the naked, emaciated bodies of old homeless men (a scene that
feels like an invasion of his subjects' privacy, since Carax has no interest in
them as people). But it's a romanticized view of street life he's pushing here,
particularly in the character of Hans (Klaus-Michael Gr|ber), the older
homeless man who lives on the bridge with Alex and dispenses dope to
him so he can sleep at night. Gr|ber has the best scene in the film, the one
with the most human feeling in it, when he explains to Michele the ways in
which his life has gone wrong. After the flailing-around of Lavant and
Binoche, you clutch at this scene, at the recognizable emotion in it.
Unfortunately, the conception of the character is a little too recognizable.
Carax has obviously based it on the grizzled old sailor played by the great
Michel Simon in Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante." And "L'Atalante" is quoted
explicitly -- and shamelessly -- in the film's climax, as Alex and Michele
stand on the prow of a barge sailing up the Seine.

What rankles about the scene isn't that Carax has had the temerity to quote
one of the greatest movies ever made. It's that his brand of "poetry," so
calculated, so cold, has nothing of the delicacy and beauty of Vigo's. It's like
listening to a one-armed, tone-deaf man playing "Clair de lune." And yet I'd
be dishonest if I denied that Carax has some talent. There are images here
that are arresting -- particularly Binoche water-skiing along the Seine while
waterfalls of fireworks drop from the bridges, and the opening scenes: the
Paris boulevards at night seen from the front seat of a speeding car, an
image that conveys a sense of freedom and possession of a sleeping city. But
the images are seeds scattered on concrete, given nothing fertile in which to
take root.

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The damnable thing about Lios Carax is that he's undoubtedly a
filmmaker. He's got the eye of a filmmaker, and the nuttiness -- even as his
films drive you crazy, you can't imagine him doing anything else -- but he
lacks the discipline, the sensibility, the talent to engage with an audience on
the most basic level and make them partner to his flights. "The Lovers on
the Bridge" is one of those follies that the movies give birth to every once in
a while. If only it were a grand folly, its excesses might seem forgivable,
lovable.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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