Carax: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Lovers on the Bridge) (1991)

One of the high points of the “Cinema du Look” that dominated French screens in the early 1990s, Lovers on the Bridge is based on an original screenplay by Leos Carax, but often feels as if it must be an experimental adaptation of a much older story, not unlike Carax’s subsequent film, Pola X, which drew upon and transformed Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. In large part, that’s because of how deftly it draws a connection between present and past, often playing as a late work of poetic realism – and a revision of The Children of Paradise in particular – in its vision of two homeless people who develop a friendship, and then a romance, while living on the Pont Neuf during its renovation for the 1989 French Bicentennial. Alex, played by Denis Lavant, appears to have been a circus actor in a former life, while Michele, played by Juliette Binoche, comes from a relatively wealthy family, but took to the streets after her eyesight started to deteriorate, and the film largely revolves around their interactions with each other – first on the bridge, and then across the entire city – as the Bicentennial celebrations and preparations escalate in the background.

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From the outset, it’s clear that Alex and Michele are both quite different from the city around them, but to simply say that they are different doesn’t do justice to the film, nor to the kind of connection they develop. Instead, to take a term from Jacques Derrida, they are differant, which is to say that they are different from themselves, or exist in the process of endlessly differing from themselves, deferring any attribute that might allow them to settle into stable characterisation. What brings them together is not traversing their differences but recognising everything that renders them incommensurable with each other, a turn that tends to collapse the conflicts and resolutions that enrhythm romantic drama into a more heightened and hallucinatory apprehension of each other’s presence and potentiality. As strange as their bodily habits and tics might be, it is the inherent strangeness of the human body itself, when decontextualised from its daily routines and milieu, that gives the film such a surreal charge, especially because we see very few other bodies across the film, while those that we do glimpse tend to be fragmented and splintered beyond recognition.

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In that sense, the opening sequence of Lovers on the Bridge plays as something of a prototype and mission statement for the film as a whole. On the one hand, we start with Alex and Michele wandering down a deserted street, in which all other humans are collapsed into the indifferent and alien perspective of passing cars. It’s only a matter of time before Alex is hit, and yet even then the driver doesn’t stop, or show any signs of humanity, but instead leaves his victim to be picked up by a charity bus, which transports him to a homeless person’s shelter. In contrast to the otherworldly desolation and pellucid cinematography of the previous scene, we’re now presented with a mass of homeless people shot in a quasi-documentary style, as Carax’s camera massages every body it touches into one writhing contortion after another, parsing the human form into a series of elliptical, exotic close-ups until it’s not even clear which part of the anatomy we’re gazing at any more. In its alternation between a post-human cityscape and a grotesque, swarming mass, this opening sequence plays as a kind of counterpoint to the streamlined Bicentennial celebrations taking place across the rest of the film, as if questioning the extent to which the kinds of crowd sustained and empowered by the Revolution can still have any place in a cityscape that seems to inimical to public space, human agency and proletarian community.

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The abrupt transition between street and shelter also paves the way for the abrasive transitions of the film more generally, since while Alex and Michele’s homelessness shrouds them in a cocoon of silence it never quite cushions them either, and indeed only makes it more abrasive when the outside world intrudes from time to time. Nowhere is that clearer than on the Pont Neuf itself, which feels like the last residue of the city that is still pitched at a human scale, or designed for humans, even as it is in the process of being renovated as the centrepiece for a commemorative spectacle of national proportions. At times, the bridge is so dislocated from the surrounding metropolis that it might as well be a stage set, while the barriers at the Rue du Pont Neuf and Rue Dauphine feel like apocalyptic thresholds, even it’s unclear whether it’s the bridge or the city that has perished. Long stretches of the film pass by in silence, and yet the silence is never permitted to settle into any kind of genuine solace or solitude either, as Carax periodically punctures them with plosive and unexpected chunks of noise and dissonant visual shifts, adopting a hyper-cinematic approach in one sequence only to transition to a handheld graininess in the next.

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Within that audiovisual dissonance, the dialogue often appears to be dubbed and dissociated from the two main characters, who seem both to have just survived an apocalypse and to be anticipating an imminent apocalypse, poised at the cusp of a trance-like rapture that has either just come or is about to come. That dislocation is enhanced by Carax’s tendency to both slow down and speed up the footage – sometimes obviously, sometimes subliminally – with the result that Alex and Michele never quite “sync” with the wider ambience of the city, or permit the ambience of the city to contour or cushion them in a naturalistic manner either. Like the bridge itself, they’re never quite abstracted from their surroundings but never quite set “against” their surroundings either, variously appearing much bigger or much smaller than the surrounding streets, and never quite “fitting” the scale of the few other people we see. Even the most seamless spaces in the city become dissonant in their path, with many of the scenes in the Paris Metro, in particular, playing as a forerunner of the parkour craze of the 2000s, as Alex and Michele run, jump, clamber, spin and dive across what initially seem to be the most accomodating pedestrian zones conceivable.

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As these frenetic movements intensify, they gradually equate the Bicentennial with this vague sense of apocalyptic aftershock but also frame it as an apocalypse that is about to occur. For that reason, it perhaps makes most sense to think of the Bicentennial as the apocalyptic cusp around which the entire film pivots, as the gradual arrival of helicopters, jets, tanks and other military regalia seems to both promise and preclude the possibility of a second, even more glorious Revolution. Strange as it might sound, these scenes often reminded me of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! in the way in which they jar, shake and unsettle the syntax of the film with an anarchic fervour that only intensifies as the Bicentennial tries to contain and commemorate the Revolution as military spectacle. Enjoining his audience to consider the paradox of formally commemorating a Revolution that started off as a riposte to all such criteria of formality and decorum, what Carax provides instead is a tone poem on the Revolution two hundred years later, as Alex and Michele insert themselves into the mounting spectacle with such orgiastic abandon that they eventually appropriate its key moments to stage their own alternative celebration that still retains all the chaotic and anarchic momentum of the original storming of the Bastille.

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Put more succinctly, Alex and Michele storm the Bicentennial celebrations in the same way the original revolutionary crowds stormed the Bastille, as if it is now the reduction of the Revolution to its own commemorative simulation that needs to be resisted and escaped. On the one hand, that allows the lovers to envisage an even more sublime spectacle than anything to be found in the Bicentennial celebrations, culminating with an incredible pyrotechnical sequence in which waterfalls of fireworks cascade off bridges on each side of the Seine as Michele waterskis along the river and Alex shoots at the sparks raining down from the sky. On the other hand, most of the film involves the lovers trying to find the residual spirit of the revolutionary crowd in each other, and trying to progressively dislocate each other from the standardised spectator demanded by the mounting Bicentennial frenzy.

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As with Carax’s other films, that results in more of an acrobatic rather than an “actorly” performance from the two leads, and especially from Lamont, as if the one thing missing from all the pomp and ceremony of the celebrations has been the vision of common bodies galvanised by revolutionary intensity. For all the stylised sequences on the Pont Neuf itself, the rest of Lovers on the Bridge approaches a kamikaze aesthetic that relishes situations in which actors appear to be in real danger, or to put their bodies on the line in an urgent way. Running across train tracks, opening a Metro door in full flight, breathing fire, picking a fish up from a market and eating it raw – these are just some of the incidents that anticipate reality television, or even the gross-out spectacles of Jackass and related franchises, in the way in which they yearn for some kind of intensified access to the body under extremity.

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If Alex and Michele search for the crowd within each other, then their passages across Paris also play as a search for the kinds of spaces that might still sustain a crowd, even as it becomes depressingly clear that all the spaces that were once shaped and occupied by the Revolution have given way to bourgeois gentrification, and have become even more exclusive and segregated than they were under the Ancien Regime. While Carax doesn’t even exactly discard the idea of Paris as a unified entity, or as a concept that might be mobilised, the city all too often turns into an echo chamber for forces that exceed Alex and Michele’s grasp, and which are utterly indifferent to them. In one of the most iconic scenes, the couple find themselves outside a nighclub that, in an odd architectural quirk, only has windows at ground level, forcing Michele to bend down to scrutinise the feet of people on the dance floor, but to also look up in an attempt to glimpse the faces that she is destined to never really see. It’s a movement that epitomises the frustration that Alex and Michele face whenever they try to meet another person’s gaze – they are either looking down or looking up, or both at the same time – while David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” which plays in the background, feels as if it must have been written just to score this perpetual moment of misidentification: “There’s no sign of life/It’s just the power to charm/I’m lying in the rain.”

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In short, Alex and Michele’s homelessness feels like a state of mind as much as a physical state – a vision of working-class energy set adrift in a middle class celebration of the Revolution. At times, it is almost as if the lovers are trapped in the pejorative image of how the bourgeoisie now regard those working class folk who were largely responsible for the Revolution in the first place, even as they prepare to celebrate the Revolution as an abstract point of nationalist consensus. Far from a persistent revolutionary force, the suggestion of Lovers on the Bridge is that the events of 1789 have come to solidify the middle class as a new aristocracy, turning Paris into a new ruin, and ensuring that any real continuity with the Revolution can only be glimpsed indirectly, either by way of heterotopic zones like the Pont Neuf construction site that are destined to disappear in the near future, or by way of the endless differance that prevents Alex and Michele ever quite identifying with their role as proletariat props to the Bicentennial, nor abstracting themselves to the comfortable distance of bourgeois spectators either. Instead, the lovers continually try to get too close to the celebrations, as if to occupy the very cusp between participation and spectatorship, and to discover in the sheer materiality of the spectacle some kind of continuity with the material forces shaping the Revolution in the first place. That works naturally alongside Michele’s deteriorating eyesight, which forces her to get as close as possible to the physical substrate of Paris as a matter of survival, although physical and aesthetic survival gradually converge over the film anyway. In one incredible scene, she and Alex sneak into the Louvre at night, and emerge from a secret portal in front of Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medua. By this point, she can no longer see it with any consistency or clarity, but as she runs her fingers over the surface of the canvas she’s charged with some deeper and more visceral communion with the writhing agony of the figures on the raft, so similar in their orgiastic abandon to the masses of homeless vagrants that we saw at the start of the film, and a prototype for Carax’s film much as it was for Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

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Yet whereas Delacroix was close enough to the Revolution to appropriate its rhetoric directly, Alex and Michele find themselves living in an era in which the Bicentennial celebrations have militaristically aestheticised the very idea of revolution, forcing Carax to rupture and torque his film away from any consistent or stable aesthetic to envisage the possibility of dissent in the first place. This time around, direct statements of resistance won’t do, and so the two lovers eventually come up with “Let Paris rot!” as their new catchphrase, as if willing the Bicentennial to disclose its own inherent material volatility, and to thereby decay into something that can be more productively mobilised for genuine world-building. Beyond that, they tend to hold back from grand statements, opting for clipped, unnatural dialogue (“Had to see you. Wanted you to see me.”) as if cautious of committing to anything with too much certainty amidst the forced consensus of commemorative furore. So tentative is their grasp on each other, and on the world, that they eventually go their separate ways, with Michele returning to her family to have her eyesight restored and Alex going to prison after assaulting someone in frustration at Michele’s departure.

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Nevertheless, they return to the Pont Neuf at the end of the film, and for a moment it seems as if they have assimilated, since Michele’s eyesight has healed, Alex’s body appears to have been disciplined by his stint in jail, and the bridge itself has been restored to its former glory. It’s a brief moment, however, with the lovers deciding, then and there, to reimagine the bridge as a port, and to depart immediately for anywhere other than Paris, with the credits rolling as they make their way down the Seine for a second time. In its reimagination of Paris as a port city, Lovers on the Bridge ends like a late work of poetic realism, but it’s also more exuberant and ebullient than anything to be found in the 1930s and 1940s, even if its energy doesn’t quite seem to match that of the subsequent New Wave either. Instead, this is, finally, a manifesto for the Cinema du Look, which found itself confronted with a cityscape in which all the impulses of the 1960s and 1970s had been contained and commodified, forcing its directors to resort to science fiction and fantasy to envisage a revolutionary aesthetic. Specifically, Lovers on the Bridge reminded of me Jacques Rivette’s Gare du Nord, a point of transition that Carax absorbs and completes in his vision of a city in which the celebration of revolution has precluded revolution, and whose cinematic heritage can only be restored by rupturing the aesthetic activism that produced it in the first place.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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