Last Friday, when The Lovers on the Bridge arrived at the Inner Circle, the Washington Post reported that Miramax had not screened the film for local critics. That’s not true, but what actually happened is even stranger: The distributor screened Leos Carax’s long-awaited, long-debated third feature in late June, but, six weeks later, neglected to tell anyone that the film was opening. And so one of the year’s biggest cinematic unveilings occurred in Washington for only a word-of-mouth audience.
That’s ridiculous, but also strangely appropriate. Les Amants du Pont Neuf—the film’s more evocative French title—has been a difficult proposition for a decade now. When released in 1991, after three years of shooting, cutting, and reshooting, the film was reportedly France’s most expensive ever, thanks largely to Carax’s decision to reproduce the Pont Neuf, Paris’ oldest bridge, and its entire environs on a lake in the south of France. (Ironically, the writer-director’s original plan was to shoot on location in Super 8—a strategy suggested by Jean-Yves Escoffier’s impressionistic handheld cinematography.) Much-discussed but little-loved in France, the movie was a box-office flop and was not widely distributed overseas. Legend has it that the film was not released in the U.S. because its producer, feuding with the prickly Carax, deliberately asked for more money than any American distributor would pay.
Finally brought stateside under the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese, The Lovers on the Bridge does seem a little musty. Few observers today would idealize the “freedom” of homeless people the way Carax does in this account of an incendiary (literally) amour between an alcoholic fire-eater and a formerly middle-class artist who suffers from both a broken heart and failing eyesight. One of the film’s visual crescendos uses the 1989 celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution as its backdrop—an event that must have seemed more timely when Carax began the project in 1988. Still, time has not tempered the film’s amok vitality or dimmed its remarkable images.
Because it’s a dreamlike underclass love story shot largely on sets, The Lovers on the Bridge may sound like Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, a downscale romance set in an imaginary Las Vegas. Carax, however, wanted his Paris to be real. Indeed, the opening sequence, in which Alex (Denis Lavant) is injured and sent to a suburban homeless shelter, looks like documentary footage. Even after Alex returns to the Pont Neuf—which is closed for renovations and thus the exclusive province of a few street people—Carax balances muck and moonbeams. Alex discovers that Michele (Juliette Binoche), the brokenhearted artist, has taken up residence on the bridge, and he is quickly smitten with the newcomer. Yet Binoche (who broke up with Carax while the film was under way) has never looked less glamorous or more vulnerable; if her role recalls silent-movie melodrama, the actress herself is convincingly scuffed and bruised. (Michele’s art, by the way, is Binoche’s own.)
Although narrative never seems Carax’s principal interest, there’s actually quite a bit of plot. Alex becomes obsessively protective of the despairing Michele, breaking into her suburban family’s home to learn more about her. When Michele thinks she hears her former lover playing cello in a Metro station, Alex rushes through the underground labyrinth to prevent their meeting. Alex and Michele embark on a modest crime spree that plays like a flashback to early Godard, and use their ill-gotten earnings to go to the seaside. After Michele’s family distributes posters seeking her and promising to cure her blindness, jealousy overwhelms Alex’s fragile grip on socialization; not exactly selfless, he prefers Michele as she is, despondent and dependent. Despite moments of rapturous abandon together, however, Alex can’t keep Michele on the bridge forever—much as Carax can’t keep sustaining the lovers’ dubious relationship with sheer visual energy.
Juxtaposing the gritty and the fanciful, Carax stages a series of grand set pieces, most of them involving light and water. (One of the director’s obvious inspirations is L’Atalante, Jean Vigo’s widely influential canal-boat romance.) Unlike One From the Heart, The Lovers on the Bridge is not a musical. Still, it often feels like one, and the bicentennial scene offers a breathless succession of hiphop and waltz with its fireworks and gunshots. Such ecstatic moments are more persuasive than the psychology of Alex and Michele’s affair, yet the movie’s extravagant passion is irrefutable. Frustrating and dazzling in equal measure, Carax’s film is a mad folly about mad folly.
The Lovers on the Bridge screened at the 1992 New York Film Festival and since then has been booked occasionally at nonprofit repertory cinemas. From those few U.S. showings, the movie has developed a cult following that includes not merely arty film critics; Carax’s distinctive imagery has also inspired other directors. In fact, millions of Americans have already seen versions of two of Lovers’ most striking moments, borrowed for far more conventional love stories: a scene of two people inspecting art in a darkened edifice was restaged (with the same actress, no less) for The English Patient, and the shot of two lovers on the bow of a ship resurfaced in Titanic. Limping into town eight years after its Paris debut, Carax’s film could never expect the hype enjoyed by those movies. Still, a film this luminous deserves better than the virtual blackout of its Washington opening.
After his well-publicized arrest and the failure of Extreme Measures, the first film from the production company he founded with girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant decided to suspend cinematic appearances and rethink his career. The result of this soul-searching, on display this summer, is the actor’s apparent determination never again to appear in a movie that’s not reminiscent of Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Featuring Grant as a proper Englishman, art auctioneer Michael Felgate, who discovers that his New York schoolteacher girlfriend, Gina Vitale (Jeanne Tripplehorn), is the daughter of a Mafia goon, Mickey Blue Eyes promises to be a fish-out-of-water comedy, with the yuks resulting from Michael’s impersonation of a tough guy. Advance publicity emphasized a scene in which Gina’s father, Frank (James Caan), tries to teach Michael to say “fuhgeddabouddit,” an odd echo of the Johnny Depp-Al Pacino exchanges in Mike Newell’s fine Donnie Brasco. (Newell, of course, directed Grant in Four Weddings and An Awfully Big Adventure.) Yet this tutorial is actually a small part of the proceedings, and Grant’s attempts at mobster diction, which owe something to Marlon Brando’s Godfather croak, are less humorous than simply weird.
Most of the story turns on a familiar premise: Grant’s well-meaning, adorably overwhelmed character pursues an unattainable beauty. In this case, girl loves boy from the first, but Gina refuses Michael because she doesn’t want him corrupted by her family. Then she accepts him, only to reject him again after she realizes that the Englishman has already been drawn into the web of her father’s boss, Vito (Burt Young). Vito’s plan to launder money by auctioning his son’s paintings—which are meant to be laughable but are so crude, bloody, and blasphemous that there just might be a market for them—provides myriad complications for Michael. Many of these descend during one classically farcical restaurant scene, in which the auctioneer must pose as a mobster while deflecting the attentions of several people who know who he really is, including his blithely goofy upper-crust boss (James Fox). Yet Michael is also presented with such contemporary black-comedy staples as the task of disposing of a body.
Despite such bloody material, the movie culminates at a wedding and includes several earnest declarations of true love of the sort that—given their prominence in Notting Hill and The Runaway Bride—must score well with test audiences. At least Grant by now has a special claim on the frustrated-nuptials comedy, which is more than can be said of the other retreads employed by director Kelly (Brain Candy) Makin. Mickey Blue Eyes opens with the camera tracking across New York Harbor, heading toward Manhattan—a shot employed by roughly 500 films in the decade since Working Girl—and closes with the camera ascending from the kissing couple to the heavens. In between, the plot is underscored by such obvious oldies as “We Are Family,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and—in case you didn’t get the message the first time— “Let’s Stick Together.”
The cliched opening aside, the movie starts with surprising vigor and wit. Adam Scheinman and Robert Kuhn’s script packs more consistent laughs than most recent Hollywood comedies, and even the bland Tripplehorn seems lively in the early scenes. But as the plot—and Grant’s characterization—heads in an utterly predictable direction, both the jokes and the performances sag. Steering the narrative toward yet another wedding may not have been a bad move for Grant’s renewed career, but it certainly wasn’t the best thing for the movie. CP