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The Boston Phoenix Dream "Lovers"

Leos Carax takes his "Bridge" very far

By Peter Keough

JULY 26, 1999:  Eyes Wide Shut is not the only movie about sexual obsession from an obsessive director in the theaters this week. Released in 1991 to horrendous reviews and little viewer interest, Léos Carax's The Lovers on the Bridge (Les amants du Pont Neuf) also seemed, like Kubrick's opus posthumous, set to be its director's last. The eccentric French filmmaker has, however, since resurrected his career with a new movie, Pola X, which opened at Cannes this year to its own set of problems, and with the long-delayed American release of Lovers. The latter poses an intriguing contrast to the Kubrick work, not just because it's flashier and more passionate, but because of what it says about irony: Kubrick can't operate without it; Carax doesn't seem to know what it is.

Such an irony deficiency would ordinarily be a handicap in any artistic enterprise, but with this subject -- primal passion, both erotic and cinematic -- it's an advantage, maybe a necessity. Eyes Wide Shut is a dream from the point of view of an analyst; desire is refracted and reflected but never really seen, let alone felt (which may be the point of the film). Lovers, when it works, is pure subjectivity, the dreamer lost in the dream, its motifs, rhythms, and associations paralleling those of music, poetry, consciousness itself.

Consciousness doesn't seem a state that Alex (Denis Lavant) is all that familiar or comfortable with. The film opens with the spectacle of him walking barefoot down the middle of a late-night Parisian street, head shaved, eyes glazed, easy prey for the speeding sports car from whose point of view we first see him. Left for dead on the pavement, he's taken in a police wagon to a homeless shelter, but not before being spotted by Michèle (Juliette Binoche), a young bag lady with an artist's portfolio and a taped-over eye.

In the first of many brash stylistic decisions, Carax shifts abruptly to cinéma-vérité, offering a harrowing Frederick Wiseman-like look at an actual Parisian drunk tank and its squawling inhabitants, including the drugged-out Alex. His rehabilitation here passes like vapor on a glass, the garishly objective realism a veil for the phatasmagoria to come when he's back on the street again, on crutches and sporting a cast, determined to return to his niche on the Pont Neuf.

Closed to traffic for restoration, the ancient bridge (in fact, a replica Carax re-created in the south of France at scandalous expense when he was denied access to the real thing) is a Beckett-like tramp's universe he shares with Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber). The latter is more an overseer than a companion; he berates Alex for his drinking and stingily monitors the mysterious drug he gives his friend to subdue his dementia.

When Hans finds Michèle sleeping on the bridge, he perceives her potential for disruption and peremptorily orders her to leave. Too late, though, for Alex is smitten, especially when he notices a sketch of himself among her belongings. Thus begins a love story that is a kind of inversion of Chaplin's City Lights, related with both the oneiric exuberance of David Lynch and the ascetic earnestness of Robert Bresson. The daughter of a rich colonel from the bourgeois suburb of St. Cloud, Michèle is suffering from a broken heart and a chronic eye disease, each threatening her with a form of blindness, spiritual and physical. The bridge and Alex, who makes ends meet by stealing food and busking as a firebreather, offer her refuge between the worlds of wealth and penury, love and despair, light and darkness. Unlike the tramp in Chaplin's film, though, Alex does not want to restore her vision; he knows that to do so would bring about the collapse of the tenuous bridge they share.

What he would lose Carax shows with an ingenuous energy and inspiration, blurring fantasy and reality in a way that at times borders on the ludicrous. In one rhapsodic sequence set during the bicentennial Bastille Day celebrations, the pair bonk a gendarme on the bean and steal his speedboat. They take off down the Seine with Michèle sailing behind on water skis, the sky above them unscrolling into a fireworks display verging on nightmare. Their love is equally pyrotechnic and ephemeral, exploding with rapturous imagery with little reference to time or place, until missing-person posters with Michèle's face begin sprouting everywhere and Alex in his role as firebreather returns with a vengeance.

The love and filmmaking invoked in The Lovers on the Bridge are intoxicating -- perhaps Carax could have used a little of Hans's mysterious calming medicine himself. And on those occasions when the exuberant high of his cinematic bravura dissipates, his tale reveals itself as a bit mawkish, banal, and melodramatic. But then, so too is love itself unless experienced first hand. Devoid of irony, doubt, and common sense, The Lovers on the Bridge is about as close to true love as movies get.

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