Taking three years to make and granted, at that time, the biggest budget in French film history, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was the last, great folly of “cinema du look.” Pont-Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris, to which Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless, street performer suffering mental illness, returns only to discover lovely, eye-patched Michèle (Juliette Binoche) sleeping in his spot. The distraught, young artist ran away from home after breaking up with her boyfriend and contracting an eye-disease that is slowly leaving her blind. Alex stops Michèle being booted off the bridge by older, street-hardened vagrant Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber), whose acceptance she eventually earns. Amidst poverty and hardship, the pair enjoy a whirlwind romance, until Michèle discovers her eyesight can be saved. But Alex cannot bring himself to let her go.
Interestingly, visionary director Leos Carax originally intended this to be a more modest, intimate affair, closer to his breakthrough movie Boy Meets Girl (1984), after deeming his follow-up Mauvais Sang (1986) - also with Binoche and Lavant - “overcomplicated.” He even spoke about filming in 8mm, which is a world away from the kaleidoscopic widescreen spectacle finally delivered. The production spiralled out of control after Parisian authorities granted Carax a mere ten days to film on the Pont-Neuf, after which he was forced to construct an expensive model near Lansargues in Southern France. Denis Lavant injured his thumb whilst tying his shoe (hey, it happens), precipitating another lengthy shutdown while he recuperated. The resulting film was praised - by amongst others, Cahiers du Cinema - and pilloried in equal measure, as alternately vibrant, life-affirming cinema or the ultimate in shallow style for style’s sake.
Arguably, the film packs its most potent punch in the opening episode, wherein an anonymous motorist speeds over unconscious Alex’s leg. Hustled aboard a bus to the homeless shelter, genuine homeless people shamble across the screen, emaciated like holocaust victims. Gut-wrenching realism exists alongside soaring fantasy set-pieces like the justly-celebrated dance sequence with the lovers showered in fireworks from the French Bicentennial celebrations overhead, or the climactic dive beneath the icy, azure waters. This unique juxtaposition drew critical fire, but when the film is at its best it transcends the banal love story and delivers magical, arresting cinema. Many of Carax’s previous works were love letters to the Nouvelle Vague and here he tips his hat to a movie commonly cited as their touchstone, L’Atlante (1931), a boy meets girl story elevated to the realms of psychological realism, where this film strives for aestheticized emotional impact. Each finds redemption, one through traditional values, the other via prison, and only then - as in L’Atlante - can they start a life together.
Searing performances from Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant punch home the drama, although Lavant doesn’t quite prevent Alex from being unforgivably selfish. Lookout for Eyes Without A Face (1959) icon Edith Scob in a small role and enjoy the eclectic soundtrack that ranges from classical pieces to Carax's trademark love of David Bowie. As a cinematic experience, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf can be quite overwhelming, one that provokes a powerful response but leaves us pondering whether what we’ve seen was mere artifice or genuinely profound.
Stylish, semi-improvisational French writer-director, a former critic who developed from short films into features with the well regarded Boy Meets Girl. However, it was the futuristic romance Mauvais Sang that really awarded him international attention and all looked well for his lavish love story follow up, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Unfortunately it was a failure and it was the end of the nineties before his subsequent film, family drama Pola X, arrived. Carax's cult following increased when after making short films for the next decade he completed his curious, much discussed feature Holy Motors which delighted and confounded in equal measure. Often works with Denis Lavant.