The Lovers on the Bridge (France, 1991) (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), Leos Carax’s tale of l’amour fou, was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and one of the most ravishing made anywhere ever. It was also a commercial disaster, alternately celebrated as a triumph of personal expression and vilified as the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate, and despite the presence of Juliette Binoche it was almost a decade before the film finally made it to American shores. The Lovers on the Bridge is the American title, a rather prosaic translation of Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. In French, the title references the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris and all the history and romance that name embodies.
Alex (the superb Denis Lavant), a volatile, alcoholic street performer with a lovable impulsiveness that masks deeper mental scars, lives on the closed-for-repairs Pont-Neuf with his best friend/mentor Hans (Klaus-Michale Gruber), who regulates his alcohol and administers his medication. Into their lives wanders Michele (Binoche), an emotionally distraught artist slowly losing her sight. As impulsive as Alex, she embraces the scruffy street performer like a soul mate and the two find a sort of equilibrium with each other, living a bohemian fantasy life of undisturbed plenty.
Perhaps undisturbed is the wrong word. While left alone by cops, even at the height of their ingenious (and patently absurd) reign of petty street crimes, the shadow of Alex’s instability intrudes on any possibility of leaving the bridge. When the city is suddenly plastered with “MISSING” posters bearing the face of Michele and information that could save her sight, his insane possessiveness leads him to hunt down and destroy every single one, a selfish, destructive, and ultimately brutal act which Carax twists into a perversely Quixotic quest, the epitome of l’amour fou.
Carax feels more deeply for Alex than I do, suggesting his outpouring of love can in some ways redeem his essentially selfish nature, that his passion overcomes his campaign to keep Michele his own at the expense of her art and her sight. I find the romantic delirium that concludes the film, as gorgeous and richly realized as it is (Carax even homages Jean Vigo’s surrealist romantic classic L’Atalante), unearned. But perhaps that’s old fashioned of me. For me, the expression of love has been how much one person will sacrifice for another, not how much one person will sacrifice of another.
But there’s no denying Carax’s emotional and cinematic passion. Lovers on the Bridge is informed by Carax’s cinematic intelligence and a tremendous confidence. He exerted a Kubrickian control by building his own Pont-Neuf (complete with surrounding neighborhoods) on a lake in Southern France after delays caused him to abandon shooting on the actual bridge. The budget spiraled out of control but it allowed Carax to create an amazing fantasy reality in a mirror of the real world. In Carax’s Paris, a locksmith turned street person can jimmy his way into one of the most heavily protected art museums in the world (just to admire the beauty by candlelight) and three homeless souls can make the Pont-Neuf, the oldest and most famous bridge in Paris closed off for repairs, their home for a summer undisturbed by police, miscreants, or for that matter repair workers.
The result is a lush cinematic painting of love, passion, and madness expressed in a romantic surrealist style and images charged with color and magic: water skiing down the Seine as strings of lights dance on the water, fireworks exploding overhead while the lovers giggle in a private joke underneath, Alex leaping and somersaulting while blowing flowers of fire during a street performance. It’s a cinema of unbound emotion and it is amazing.
It’s a film that deserves—no demands—a Blu-ray release for home video screenings and Kino Lorber delivers the film’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition (unseen for this review). The Blu-ray improves upon the previous American DVD release with more accurate skin tones, richer colors, and greater texture and detail.
Features the video essay “Water and Stone” (9 minutes) by Cristina Alvarez Lopez & Adrian Martin, originally produced for the website / streaming service MUBI, and the original trailer, plus a 12-page booklet with an essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.
Lovers on the Bridge [Blu-ray]
Lovers on the Bridge [DVD]