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[whitespace] Denis Lavant, Juliette Binoche
Bridge Club: Lovers Alex (Denis Lavant) and Michèle (Juliette Binoche) are among a group of homeless people who find shelter under a Paris bridge.

Lovers on a Bridge Over Troubled Waters

French director Léos Carax's 'The Lovers on the Bridge' surfaces after years of stateside theatrical neglect

By Richard von Busack

THE PONT-NEUF--the "new bridge"--is, naturally, the oldest bridge in Paris. It bridges the Seine, crossing over the prow of the Isle de la Cité. In 1991's The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf), the bridge serves as a metaphor, a connector for two different worlds.

The Isle de la Cité sits in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in the world, on which, strangely, a poor man can live. This odd situation recalls the famous Anatole France saying: The law in its wisdom allows both the rich and the poor to sleep under the bridge.

The Lovers on the Bridge takes place during the bicentennial summer of 1989. In the middle of the night, a homeless young man named Alex (Denis Lavant) has gone crazy from sleeplessness and drink. He collapses, to grind his head against the asphalt.

The police scoop him up and take him to a homeless person's warehouse; he is eventually cleaned up, bandaged and released. He limps back to the closed-for-repairs Pont-Neuf; there, behind the construction barricades, sleeps his pal and guardian Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber), a gruff old man who is the custodian of Alex's meds.

The two of them have a new tenant on their bridge, a young lady. Michèle (Juliette Binoche) is an artist, going blind. Alex and Michèle become friends and then lovers, sharing their rage and drinking cheap wine out of plastic bottles. Binoche, usually used for her pretty face, is believably rough and irascible; her acting never looks like the work of a pretty star showing off her chops.

Passages in The Lovers on the Bridge are simply incredible. It's also incredible that this film has waited nine years for an American release. When so many of the bigger French pictures emulate dumb American ones--consider the illustrious career of Luc Besson--it is exciting to see the work of a French director more intoxicated with the visions of the 1930s directors of doomed romance, Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert, only photographed with the widescreen colors of a Vincente Minnelli musical.

DIRECTOR LÉOS CARAX'S ruinously visionary filmmaking involved the building of a replica Paris some 60 miles away from the real thing. This mock Paris is most stunning in the unforgettable scenes of Bastille Day 1989 madness.

Alex is a street-corner fire breather, demonstrating his craft at night into a shooting montage of flames. Later we see actual fireworks exploding over Paris while Michèle and Alex cavort on their bridge as if they are the only living people in Paris.

They dance to a montage of music by everyone from Tchaikovsky to Iggy Pop. At last, Iggy's music is appropriate, not appropriated: Alex, all bone and skin, is as mad as that scrawny, mad, scratched-up King of the Punks himself. Carax caps the sequence with a speedboat rip down the Seine, with the walls blazing with fire-falls.

For guts and madness, this film deserves the attention given to the equally strange romance The English Patient. The Lovers on the Bridge won't be around long, so go see it on a big screen.

A quick note about its problems: in marrying stylized romance with very realistic hopelessness, Carax flawed the movie. It's hard to reconcile his harrowing observation of the scars and sarcomas on the homeless with the sweet ending, which seems like a spoonful of sugar after all the glittering broken glass.

And Carax's attempts at a love triangle don't work. Hans, drifting first in and then finally out of the picture, is only a distraction, a stillborn subplot. Still, The Lovers on the Bridge is an astonishing film about bare-bones love. Carax's thrilling visions deserve an audience.

'The Lovers on the Bridge' (R; 120 min.), directed and written by Léos Carax, photographed by Jean-Yves Escoffier and starring Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant and Klaus Michael-Gruber, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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