As a fledgling critic, in talking about The Lovers on the Bridge, I am obligated to give context to the film’s storied production. It may not be quite the story that goes with Apocalypse Now, but the freak injuries, shortage of time, and steadily growing budget are all there. Leos Carax, after starting out small with Boy Meets Girl (1984) and growing his budget for the follow-up Mauvais Sang (1987), wanted to scale back for The Lovers On The Bridge. First he planned a 1.5 million franc, black and white, super 8 film, and then it became a modestly budgeted film 8-9 million francs, to be filmed on the heavily-trafficked Pont Neuf (hence the more specific French title, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf). They were granted three weeks to film instead of three months, so they erected a replica set, the budget grew, injuries occurred, production halted, and the eventually 70 million franc film took three years to complete, becoming the stuff of legend.
But it is the film itself, often relegated to cult-status when mentioned, that deserves to be the stuff of legend. Carax takes us through romance, anti-romance, melodrama, and thriller, stopping on numerous unforgettable images on the way. King among these is when our titular heroes Michèle and Alex, portrayed by Juliette Binoche and Denis Levant (in their second consecutive outing as a Carax couple) find themselves on the Pont Neuf during the French Bicentennial, laughing and screaming drunkenly to Johann Strauss and Public Enemy before stealing a powerboat, which Michèle follows on a water ski. The scene is one of the most romantically surreal in the history of the cinema. It is a scene where you struck by the total loneliness of the characters and yet completely enamored with their anti-romantic lifestyle that is pleasing them so much. It is a scene with so many different tones that tells us so much about its characters both in their actions and in the way Carax shoots it that it could never grow tiresome. This scene alone justifies the myth of the production, and you can see every penny that was used in images like these.
While the aforementioned celebration scene, unquestionably the film’s highpoint, comes too soon, the romance of the film is not unworthy of the legend. A tale of two homeless somewhat-lovers, one a painter losing her eyesight trying to recapture an ex, the other a broken-legged vagabond who would rather go behind his lover’s back than ask her questions, Lovers strives to bring to life what lost artists and homeless risk-takers must dream. Carax takes us along a tonal rollercoaster, but where so many directors would make the film betray itself, Carax makes every disparate scene a complex piece of his trademark ill-fated romanticism. No matter what Lovers is being in one scene or another, it somehow all makes sense as part of this weirdly extravagant whole. His use of music—whether it’s original score or different genres of popular music—is masterful. Take the first scene in the movie, where the heavily tinted car ride is accompanied by a cello piece that we hear later in another beautiful metro scene. There is no dialogue, no story, not even a face to identify with, yet it is riveting. Carax fully grasps the importance of both sight and sound, and his use of the latter in particular is masterful whether the music is diegetic or not. But the horrors of these early scenes, somewhat difficult to watch, make way for a curious scene where we are introduced to the Pont Neuf and its residents. It’s something completely different, and the following segue into the film’s romance would be jarring in less confident hands, but it all plays perfectly here, capturing the highs and lows of life on the bridge with the same flux and timeliness that must work with the changing of the seasons (itself mentioned as an ominous low-point several times).
All this technical mastery would be all for naught if our lovers were boring, but, thanks in large part to Binoche, they are not. We do not know if she is in love, what she seeks to recapture, why she paints, or much of her backstory, and while these questions are too often forgotten by the film, Binoche wears these questions in her appearance, creating a compelling loving/loveless duality that keeps the film moving even as the plot begins to slow. Levant does not bring as much complexity, playing Alex as too single-mindedly possessive and prone to jealousy, but he does bring with him a quiet likeability in doing so.
Lovers On The Bridge packs most of its best scenes before the two-thirds mark, so it does become a bit redundant and lose the unique beauty it comes from, but you are not likely to find a more unforgettable romance and unique directorial style than you do here. This kind of blend of story, images, and music is something that would not be achieved again until Kieslowski’s Blue and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, and for all its imperfections, you will want to see it again to relive the romance it instills to such an unromantic situation. Myth or no myth, Lovers On The Bridge demands to be seen in all of its extravagance and unevenness. What it has to say is not especially memorable, but the way that it says it certainly is. It’s a film that will find a place in your memory far more than a place in your heart. But with this kind of story, that’s exactly what you need.