Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Overlooked Gems #49: The Lovers on the Bridge

Grade: 89 (A-)

Some directors are celebrated in spite of their excess. Leos Carax is celebrated because of it. Carax has become almost as famous for his Terrence Malick-like non-prolificacy (his new film, Holy Motors, is his first in 13 years and fifth in his nearly thirty year career) as he is for the fantastical explosions of feeling that pepper his films. Carax’s 1991 film The Lovers on the Bridge has gained a small but fervent cult following in the years since its botched release- Miramax picked it up only to hold onto for years before dumping it into theatres in 1999- but Carax’s name is still not widely known among budding cinephiles. Time to change that.

Alex (Denis Lavant) is an alcoholic, pill-popping street-performer and tramp who sleeps on the Pont-Neuf (New Bridge). Michele (Juliette Binoche) is a homeless artist, haunted by a failed relationship and slowly going blind. The two meet and fall in love, with Michele gradually growing more dependent on Alex. But when Michele’s family learns of treatment that could save her eyesight, Alex shields Michele from their radio announcements and flyers, fearing that she’ll leave him if she gets better.

Sounds awfully bleak, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. Carax never undersells the plights of his protagonists, and he’s aided by appropriately downbeat turns from the pathologically possessive Lavant (his frequent muse) and the ghostlike Binoche (his former lover). The film’s depiction of amour fou at a poverty level is certainly gritty and filled with soul-crushing lows associated with French tales of love. The harder Lavant tries to hold onto Binoche, the more disturbing his behavior becomes, as best exemplified in a sequence where he burns the posters Binoche’s family has put all over the subway in order to find her.

But just like French New Wave influences Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut before him, Carax also understands that the amour part is just as important as the fou part. And it’s in the dizzying highs that Carax shines the brightest, particularly in a stunning sequence halfway through where Binoche and Lavant dance on the Pont-Neuf under a sky of fireworks as a collage of songs from Strauss, Iggy Pop, Public Enemy and more soundtrack their happiness. It’s a moment of pure ecstatic feeling matched only by the two most famous scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (no spoilers for the poor souls who haven’t seen that one yet). If there’s a weakness to The Lovers on the Bridge, it’s that the next hour of the film, while still magnificent, can’t quite live up to what’s come before it, having been upstaged by pure movie magic. But that’s a weakness most films could only dream of.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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