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'Les Amants du Pont-Neuf' is a moviegoer's dream.

By Chris Herrington

APRIL 17, 2000: 

The Lovers on the Bridge/Les Amants du Pont-Neuf directed by Léos Carax, Miramax/Buena Vista

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is one of the most exciting films I've seen in ages. A deliriously gonzo urban expressionist fantasy and a grandly romantic anti-romance, it's the kind of mad, passionate cinema rarely seen these days, at least on the safe havens of multiplex screens in the U.S.

One of the most expensive productions in the history of French cinema, this near-apocalyptic masterpiece took director Léos Carax three years to complete, and at 56 times the cost of the average French film. When Carax's permit to film on the Pont-Neuf Bridge ran out before he had finished, he built a life-size replica of the bridge on a lake in the south of France. The film was released in France in 1991 but didn't garner distribution in the U.S. until last summer, and then in a modest release that skipped most mid-size markets, including Memphis.

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf has achieved a great deal of notoriety on its slow march to U.S. distribution and video release. In 1997, Film Comment conducted an exhaustive poll of film critics, historians, and exhibitors to name the most important foreign language films of the Nineties that hadn't been released in the U.S. Les Amants topped more ballots than any other film. Last year, in a national critics' poll conducted by the Village Voice, it was named one of the 100 best films of the Nineties.

The film centers on two homeless people: Michele (Juliette Binoche), a (formerly) middle-class artist who is slowly going blind, and Alex (Denis Lavant), a mentally unbalanced young man who lives on the Pont-Neuf while it's closed for renovations. They become friends, then lovers -- Paris turning into their personal playground as the film morphs from grubby realism to starry-eyed expressionism. Along the way, their relationship is complicated when Michele's family and friends attempt to find her for an operation that could save her sight, and Alex, selfishly but understandably given his mental state and the film's commitment to a world of its own making, tries to eradicate any attempt to take Michele away.

Les Amants' jaw-dropping middle section has to be one of the most thrilling and exalted sequences in the history of film. During a Bastille Day celebration, Michele and Alex find themselves alone on the bridge, fireworks exploding around them as they shoot Michele's revolver into the air and dance madly to a secondhand transistor radio that segues magically from early Public Enemy to a Strauss waltz. Then, for an encore, they steal a boat and Alex takes Michele waterskiing on the Seine, while waterfalls of fireworks tumble from the bridge.

In its bold stylistic sweep, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf amounts to a selective survey of film history. The early scenes of Alex at a homeless shelter, and the subsequent depiction of street life, echo the Italian neorealism of the Thirties and Forties. Alex's and Michele's later exploration of Paris, filmed with a wonderfully spontaneous vibe, embodies the notion that the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum dubbed City as Plaything -- a hallmark of French New Wave films of the Sixties and Seventies like Breathless and Celine and Julie Go Boating. And Les Amants du Pont-Neuf also shares some of the fin de siècle flair of contemporary world cinema masters as diverse as Wong Kar-Wai (Fallen Angels) and Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves). But, to bring this personal list of cinematic touchstones back to the very beginnings of the medium, Carax's most significant influence seems to be the silent film. The film's final scene borrows brazenly from another masterpiece of romantic French cinema, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, and the film's plot flips the script on Chaplin's City Lights. And Carax's megalomaniacal insistence on constructing a grandiose artificial reality at all costs places him as an heir to Erich Von Stroheim.

All of that may make Les Amants du Pont-Neuf sound like a film buff's treasure, and it is. But even if you've never heard of any of the films or directors mentioned in the previous paragraph, and even (or especially) if you're a casual moviegoer whose film diet consists primarily of each weekend's most high-profile new release, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is a film with the power to make you fall head over heels in love with cinema, with the medium's grand possibilities and subtle emotional truths.

Disclaimer: It is bad enough to have to watch a film as epic as Les Amants du Pont-Neuf on a television. But Miramax has stupidly, unconscionably decided to format the film on video, essentially removing a third of the image. I can't even imagine how rapturous Les Amants du Pont-Neuf would be in its proper form.

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