The Lovers on the Bridge, a 1991 movie about two homeless people, is unfortunately more famous for its folly than its quality. One of the most expensive French movies ever made, it flopped in Europe (despite winning three European Film Awards) and only found limited release in the U.S. But don’t let its reputation or relative obscurity fool you. Lovers is one of the most spectacular movies to come out on DVD this year.
The film centers on the homeless Michele (Juliette Binoche) and Alex (Denis Lavant), who spend most of their time on the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris while it’s closed for construction. It’s never clear why Alex has been reduced to sleeping on hard stone, although some sort of drug dependency is clearly a factor, but Michele is distraught over a failed relationship and her degenerating eyesight. Already blind in one eye with the other slipping fast, she sees her career as a painter fading to black.
Alex and Michele meet when he notices a drawing she’s done of him. Transfixed both by his own picture and the thought behind it, he pursues Michele until—during a night of wine and fireworks—she falls in love with him. The two embark on a tender and obsessive relationship—tender in its closeness (beautifully rendered in numerous nighttime scenes on the bridge and at the ocean), obsessive in the way the lovers, particularly Alex, try to exclude the outside world.
Obsession is a broader theme in the film, particularly noticeable in its amazing set design. The movie was originally supposed to be shot on the famous Parisian bridge itself; but when the production fell behind schedule, director Leos Carax ordered an exact replica of the bridge, along with the surrounding buildings, built in the French countryside so that filming could continue. The enormous set reportedly bankrupted two different producers and became more notorious than the movie.
Nonetheless, even if the accountants disagree, the finished product makes a powerful argument that the money was well spent. As rivers become a main character in Jean Renoir’s films, the Pont-Neuf—along with the Seine River—is a wonderful, almost living, entity. Stunning night shots with gorgeous, soft-focus lighting capture the grandeur of the structure as well as the romance blossoming on its arch. And when Michele and Alex steal a boat and go waterskiing down the river, the effect is magical.
Contributing to the film’s success is Jean-Yves Escoffier’s breathtaking cinematography—bridge scenes and iconic images like a ferris wheel lit up at night, a military parade that becomes a whirling montage of color, abstract river shots worthy of Monet’s water-lily paintings and an awe-inpiring 10-minute pyrotechnic display celebrating the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day.
The fireworks are clearly an homage to Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. But where Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were suave, beautiful and wealthy, Carax’s two lovers are, despite Binoche’s radiant beauty, disheveled, crass and—in society’s eyes—worthless. The contrast is striking and is raised in the movie’s first scene.
The camera shoots from a moving luxury vehicle as it smoothly glides down the streets, tunnels and bridges of Paris. On the way we see Alex and Michele but, at first, they seem like extras cast for atmosphere. Cinema tradition guides us into assuming our focus should be on the beautiful people in the car we’re “traveling with.” But we never see them again. The wealthy are extras in Carax’s movie; his focus is on the downtrodden.
He reminds us that we all have dreams, stories and obsessions—and we need those stories told back to us. When Alex sees his portrait, his joy at being represented is palpable. When Michele and Alex meet again on the beautiful snow-covered bridge, their happiness is moving. Hearty praise must go to Binoche and Lavant for bringing the full range of humanity to characters we usually ignore.