(Soundtrack: Red Aunts — #1 Chicken)
Holy mackerel! I just saw Leos Carax’s Amants Du Pont-Neuf (also saw a special presentation of Milestone’s Hallelujah I’m A Bum yesterday, but more on that one later…)–what an amazingly demented film! As many have noted, particularly the perceptive featured-reviewer on the movie’s IMDB page, this is the old tribute-to-classic-Hollywood-with-a-difference routine–but what a difference! More than anything, I’d say Carax’s work is a sort of revisionist take on Borzage–the master of the “love triumphs over all obstacles” school. What happens, the director appears to be wondering, when love is the obstacle?
The film opens with a bone-crunchingly disturbing “meet-cute” situation, as one-eyed artist Michele (played by Juliette Binoche, whom I’ve never particularly liked–but she’s perfect in this one!) finds drug-addled fire-eater Alex passed out on a busy Paris street, right after a car has run over his foot. Suddenly, a French paddy-wagon pulls up and carts them off to some kind of drunk-tank. Carax turns this harrowing bus ride into a nightmare version of the “Man on the Flying Trapeze” sequence in It Happened One Night, another really important inspiration for this transient-romance. Unlike in Capra’s film, the “singing” (well, wailing) in this scene plays up the lack of community amongst this group of wayfarers, and this sets the tone for the rest of the film. Later on, we find out that Michele has drawn a sketch of Alex, and this provides the pretext for their rapprochement, once they both wind up back at the street performer’s roost on the Pont-Neuf, which is under renovation and closed to all law-abiding citizens.
Inevitably, a romance blooms, presided over by aggressive, cynical, dope-dispensing Hans, the other resident of the bridge, who poses (very badly) as a mentor-figure to the two youngsters. Just as in It Happened One Night, this pair work overtime contriving artificial means of staying together, and, as in most Borzage films, they basically “live on love”–and the fruits of their furious passion. However, Carax departs markedly from these earlier romances by emphasizing the destructive nature of their love. They may have “found each other” and “formed a country of two”, but they very clearly stand in a position of “new hostility” vis-a-vis society at large. At the midpoint of the film, they perform a drunken, gun-blasting ballet, against the backdrop of (actually, more like “besieged by”) a summer fireworks festival. And this is the mildest of their adventures. Most of the rest of them result in the maiming, drugging, or murder of various innocent Parisian bystanders…
This last event occurs when Alex attempts to prevent an afficheur (entrusted with a “missing” poster that threatens the relationship with the promise of the restoration of Michele’s sight, which has been deteriorating throughout their stay on the bridge) from making his appointed rounds. Naturally, Alex, like any romantic-comedy hero (think Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby), has to find a way keep his beloved near at hand. Unlike any of his predecessors that I can think of, he resorts to arson–burning every poster he can find, and then the glueman himself!
Sadly for Alex, it’s all in vain, since the medical clarion call reaches Michele anyway, through their crusty transistor radio. Again, this is an old-time melodrama situation (will she regain her sight? she hardly dares to hope!), with the twist that, somehow, we are sure the doctors will succeed in their mission, if only she can get out of her lover’s clutches in time! Sick!
She manages the trick by drugging his wine, leaving him a note informing him that she never really loved him and instructing him to forget her. She says nothing about shooting a hole through the palm of his hand, but that’s what he chooses to do instead. Then he just lies there until the police come to arrest him for the manslaughter of the sign-guy.
Two years later, she comes to see him in prison, and, despite his initial reticence, they fall deeply into conversation and their accustomed romantic reverie. He’s got less than a year left on his sentence, and they agree to meet on the bridge when he gets out, on Christmas Eve (sounds like Love Affair no?). When they do, on a beautiful snowy night, they are forced to share the fully refurbished bridge with the rest of the world, and it’s pretty hard to watch the scene in which they come together in the midst of all the traffic. Only the magic of movie-love keeps them safe, because they aren’t even looking one way, let alone the proverbial “both ways” that your mother told you about! They break out the booze, and there’s a Cassavettesesque extended mild-joke-and-wildly-overreactive-laughter scene that is both exhilarating and cringe-inducing, after which she declares that she has to go and he realizes that she’s living with some other guy. He screams “mensonge” and lunges at her, sending them both hurtling off of the bridge. I was all set for a double-suicide finale, but no! Somehow, the cold water–or maybe it’s just being away from the bridge, which is both a love-nest and a self-policed concentration (on each other) camp for two in this film–restores them to some semblance of sanity, and they rise to the surface…
They are rescued by a garbage scow helmed by an old married couple on their final tour of duty. The young lovers decide to ride it out with them–and, for the first time, their connection with each other seems to put them into sync, rather than out of it, with others. This scene is very reminiscent of scenes in Minnelli’s The Clock, which continually forces painfully shy war-time lovers Judy Garland and Robert Walker into close and increasingly amicable quarters with various late-night urban types, most notably James Gleason, as the old milkman. And so, as the boat scuds away from the bridge-to-nowhere, these two people are finally primed to begin their love-affair with the whole wide world!
Pretty damn good!
Good Night Friends!