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With: Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, Klaus-Michael Gruber
Written by: Leos Carax
Directed by: Leos Carax
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 125
Date: 10/16/1991

The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Troubled Waters

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It usually takes some of the world's greatest imports a year or two to find a release date in the Unitd States. But Les Amants du Pont-Neuf -- now known as The Lovers on the Bridge -- took nine years.

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was, at the time, the most expensive and controversial feature made in France. Half the people who saw it declared it a masterpiece, and the other half thought it was pretentious and horrible. It was a giant-sized debacle. It lost a ton of money. It ranks with D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Joseph L. Mankiewicz' Cleopatra, and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate in that regard. In 1991, the film was too expensive to pick up for US distribution. The savvy Miramax waited nine years until the movie was cheap and picked it up. They retitled it The Lovers on the Bridge and unceremoniously dumped it into tiny rep and art houses across the country. And Miramax still looks good for being the only distributor "brave" enough to handle the daring film. Even then, they were reluctant to actually release it until Martin Scorsese came on as "presenter." The only good thing about that is that the film remains uncut. I imagine that only a few hundred people across the country will actually venture out to see The Lovers on the Bridge, and yet it is one of the great film events of the decade.

The Lovers on the Bridge was directed by "enfant-terrible" Leos Carax who, to date, has only made four movies, none of which has been released in the Us. Carax had at one time received permission to close off the real Pont-Neuf bridge, which crosses the Seine in Paris, but his window of opportunity lapsed, and he decided to spend most of his budget re-creating the bridge and all its surroundings. Then, in this expensive setting, Carax placed the sparest of love stories. The film is similar to Titanic in this regard, but The Lovers on the Bridge has so much more depth to it than James Cameron's simplistic rich-girl/poor-boy love triangle. The Lovers on the Bridge is far more similar to Chaplin's City Lights with its homeless tramp and blind girl.

The homeless man, Alex, is played by the extremely homely-looking Denis Lavant, with his slitty, crusty eyes, his smashed, swollen nose, and his shaved head. And of course, Michele is played by the lovely Juliette Binoche, who has won an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for The English Patient, 1996) during the time that The Lovers on the Bridge was made and released here. Binoche looks a bit scruffy herself, wearing an eyepatch and brown gunk on her teeth. She's an artist who is slowly going blind and suffers blackouts when she does try to paint. Alex passes out cold on a street and Michele paints his face. When she shows up on the dilapidated bridge (shut down for repairs), Alex's mentor Hans (Klaus-Michael GrĂ¼ber), an older homeless man with a pile of keys strapped to his belt, tells her to beat it. But Alex has fallen in love and convinces him to let her stay.

The scenes that follow are mad and wild, pure expressions of visual emotion, not just your typical sticking-my-head-out-the-sunroof-as-the-car-speeds-along of Hollywood. Alex performs as a fire-eater, spewing flames high into the night sky for onlookers and charging a few francs. One night, fireworks shoot all over the Paris sky, and different kinds of music blend into a joyous melody. Drunk, Alex and Michele dance on the bridge, then steal a motorboat and jet down the middle of the Seine, fireworks spraying on all sides of them. In another scene, Hans takes Michele to the Louvre to see her favorite painting before her eyes go out completely. (He was a security guard and still has his keys.) He hoists her up on his shoulders so that she can squint by candlelight. When he lets her down, they embrace. It's sweet and slightly sensual.

The turning point comes when Michele's family begins searching for her to help restore her eyesight with a new operation. Hundreds of posters spring up all over Paris, and Alex burns them up as fast as he can. But he burns a helpless human in the process and winds up in jail. But Carax brings the lovers back together on Christmas day on the newly reopened bridge. There's an incredible sense of an entire lifetime gone by--both lovers reformed, cleaned, and no longer homeless. Carax ends with one final insane gesture. Alex pushes Michele off the bridge. (He would rather lose a life--his or hers or someone else's--than her love.) They're rescued by a barge and they decide to take the barge to the end of the line together (where the old couple who captain it will retire). It's a direct homage to Jean Vigo's brilliant L'Atalante, but there's also a scary pre-Titanic moment of Alex and Michele hanging off the front of the barge, arms spread wide.

The Lovers on the Bridge is not a feel-good romance. The homeless issue pervades throughout. Near the beginning, Alex is taken to a shelter, which contains some of the most gruesome images since Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies. Alex also depends on a drug to go to sleep at night. Michele convinces him to give it up, and they use it to put lunching businessmen to sleep in order to pick their pockets. Indeed, these characters are selfish and needy as opposed to the usual lonely, lovestruck characters we get in Hollywood.

But I find this all refreshing. I suppose what most of the world saw in Titanic -- a giant-sized lunatic package for an old-fashioned romance -- I saw in The Lovers on the Bridge. However, I prefer to think of Titanic as a mystery. For me, the meat of the movie is in the prologue and epilogue, with Bill Paxton and Gloria Stuart looking for the jewel. The Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet section is simplistic and insulting. It's only the backdrop that matters. In The Lovers on the Bridge the backdrop is as spectacular as the romance is.

A word about Juliette Binoche, whose Oscar win greatly upset me. The English Patient was such a stale, long-winded, timid movie. (I had put my money on Lauren Bacall, if not for The Mirror Has Two Faces, then for her work in To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Written on the Wind.) But sometimes the Academy gives belated awards to artists for the wrong movies. Even though barely anyone in Hollywood would have seen The Lovers on the Bridge in 1996, maybe there was something to Binoche that got to the voters. Truly she is spectacular, and I take back any negative comments I made about her at the time.

Anyway, I believe that The Lovers on the Bridge is a film for the ages, despite the lack of media telling us so. I didn't receive a press screening for it, and I had to go and pay to see it with a grand total of six (!) other audience members. Maybe there is a bit of backlash against the fact that this film has been unavailable for so long, and has received a serious lack of attention even now. Maybe I'm overreaching and overpraising--too little too late. But I'm willing to gamble and put The Lovers on the Bridge on my 'Great' list for now and see how it looks in the next century.

In 2017, Kino Lorber -- with the help of Martin Scorsese -- finally released this great movie on video in the United States, on a crushingly beautiful Blu-ray edition. It's an essential release anyway, but it's too bad there aren't more/better extras. We get a 10-minute video essay by Christina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin, and a liner notes essay by film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

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