Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)

FILM, Film Society
Previously at the Wellington Film Society: romance in a blaze of glory.

What is it with rivers and fraught movie productions? Like the chaos behind the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or the fever dream of Werner Herzog’s perilous three-year ordeal to bring Fitzcarraldo to the screen (and a 320-ton steamboat up and over a hill), the making of Leos Carax’s Les amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge) is as arresting as the finished film itself.[1] Here, the river in question is the Seine, which runs through the heart of Paris and beneath the city’s oldest standing bridge, the Pont-Neuf. With Carax’s preference to shoot on the actual bridge proving a logistical nightmare, construction on a replica model, including the body of water beneath it and facades of the buildings around it, began in earnest. Predictably, costs skyrocketed. Investors became nervous. Denis Lavant sustained an injury tying his shoe, delaying what limited filming had been permitted on the real bridge. Carax was heedlessly in love with Juliette Binoche, as he was with Mireille Perrier before (star of Boy Meets Girl [1984]), and Yekaterina Golubeva (star of Pola X [1999]) after. The budget buckled under the pressure, and production was eventually shut down. In Herzogian vernacular, it was a conquest of the useless.

Eventually completed, but at some cost, Les amants du Pont-Neuf remains one of the most expensive film productions undertaken in France—the official figure no one really knows or is willing to admit. On the basis of its troubled history, the film has outgrown its affiliation with the so-called “Cinéma du look” movement (a tenuous group of cinematic stylists, chiefly Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson, the latter responsible for “the death of French Cinema” according to Pauline Kael), its circumstances aligning it more closely with the catastrophic failures that marked the end of the New Hollywood era a decade earlier. What Les amants du Pont-Neuf actually has in common with the likes of Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate (both masterpieces, by the way) is not so much an attitude of artistic extravagance and excessive perfectionism—or self-indulgence, in the dismissive parlance of the film’s detractors—but an extreme degree of difficulty. One can’t help but think of the real, tangible spectacle Carax committed to screen here in relation to the mournful howl of his most recent film, Holy Motors, a eulogy for cinema in the face of sweeping digital change. If Les amants du Pont-Neuf was remade today, at best its director would get a prefabricated bridge on a soundstage surrounded by a green screen; the iconic Parisian cityscape and skyline plugged into the background with the soulless ease of a few thousand mouse clicks. The ‘magic’ of technology.

Of course, it helps that Carax is a supreme imagemaker, capable of reinventing a scenario as stripped down as two actors on a motion capture stage as an otherworldly ballet. What’s surprising about Les amants du Pont-Neuf is that begins at the opposite end of the spectrum. Its opening scenes of Paris’ homeless and mentally ill, first seen rounded up into a paddy wagon, then shepherded into an overcrowded flophouse, are stern and unflinching, more akin to Frederick Wiseman than Jean Vigo. (Carax has said that these scenes alone took a year to shoot.) The film’s titular lovers, played by Lavant and Binoche, are vagrants sleeping rough on the Pont-Neuf. On the night of the city’s Bicentennial fireworks display, they drink themselves silly, laugh hysterically, fire a pistol into the air, and dance uncontrollably as the soundtrack mashes from Iggy Pop to Public Enemy to Johann Strauss. Put simply, it is the greatest scene of drunken euphoria ever conceived, and from that moment on, the film is transformed. Soon after, like a gag out of a silent comedy, the partners in crime conspire to knock out a speedboat driver. The ensuing joyride down the Seine, Binoche outrageously on water skies throughout, is the equivalent of Godard’s band of outsiders storming the Louvre. (For the record, Binoche’s character also breaks into the actual Louvre to steal a glimpse of her favourite painting.)

Les amants du Pont-Neuf is Carax’s most romantic film, and therefore prone to aggressive criticisms: that it’s ridiculous, flamboyant, superficial, reckless. It references Chaplin’s City Lights, and yet reminds me more vividly of Frank Borzage, the ultimate unfashionable romantic, whose silent era love stories of street angels and handsome saps—particularly the Paris-set Seventh Heaven—are equally erotic, gestural, expressionistic, and hinged crucially on close-ups and physical states. But excitingly, Carax is also an unsentimental poet; his characters are selfish and irrational, their behaviour towards themselves and each other as ugly as it is tender, and ultimately all the more intoxicating. And miraculously, the film’s collection of brilliant yet fragmented moments somehow coalesce into a fluid whole—the same of which can’t be said of Carax’s striking but stuttering debut feature, Boy Meets Girl, a kind of prequel in which Lavant also plays a lovelorn man named Alex (and in Mauvais Sang [1986] too, the three incarnations accompanied by matching David Bowie songs). The financial and artistic challenge of completing the film recalls other ambitious, improbable modern romances: Coppola’s One From the Heart, a quizzical flop famous for the enormous sets that finally bankrupted its director; or Map of the Human Heart, a staggeringly imagined melodrama of unrequited love (see the Dresden bombing scene for proof) from our own Vincent Ward, a filmmaker no stranger to production hell. In the end though, few films can hold a candle to Les amants du Pont-Neuf as an impossible feat, an exhilarating blaze of glory never to be repeated again.

Film Societies in sixteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.

[1] In the tradition of Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams, Les amants du Pont-Neuf also has its own eye-opening making-of documentary—albeit, one that’s hard to see. The 50-minute film, entitled Enquête sur un film au-dessus de tout soupcon, was recently made available on YouTube. As it is not subtitled, French-speaking cinephiles will be the only ones in luck.

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.