(director/writer: Leos Carax; cinematographer: Jean-Yves Escoffier; editor: Nelly Quettier; cast: Juliette Binoche (Michèle Stalens), Denis Lavant (Alex), Klaus-Michael Gruber (Hans); Runtime: 125; Miramax Zoe; 1991-France)
“Leos Carax’s inspiration for this film was Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Leos Carax’s inspiration for this film was Jean Vigo’s masterpiece “L’Atalante” (1934). This becomes very evident by the film’s end, as the love story concludes with the lovers on a barge heading out to the Atlantic. This modern lyrical film is a love story about the homeless who live on the oldest and most famous bridge in Paris, the Pont-Neuf, which is in a high rent area that only the very rich can afford.

The film starts out looking as if it is going to be a documentary, but it slowly builds into an intense study of three people who come to live there as homeless souls and then it builds into a fantastic love story. The lovers live outside by the debris of the Pont-Neuf (the bridge was closed for repairs in 1989). The lovers had no possessions and lived only for their feelings for one another. There is nothing pretty about these characters or endearing about the situation they are in, and it has a frighteningly real look.

This high-budget fantasy film is directed by Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl/Bad Blood); it is one of the most costly French films ever made, as it cost roughly $28 million francs. Carax built a monumental set in the South of France countryside that duplicated Pont-Neuf and its environment, which is where most of the loot was spent.

Alex (Denis Lavant) is a street-person, a drunk, and a drug addict. He has passed out on the road, and his leg gets run over. When he limps back to his usual resting spot under the bridge he finds a young woman, Michèle (Juliette Binoche), who is wearing an eye patch, sleeping in his usual spot. His partner, an older bum, Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber), takes an immediate dislike to her and tells her to get lost, she can’t sleep here. He tells her a woman will only get raped or beaten up here, it only a place for bums like Alex and me. It turns out that she is an artist and is rapidly losing her eyesight. She is also suffering from a heartache over a lover; and, is afraid that she will never see again. She has run away from her comfortable former existence, and only wishes to stay here and draw some last portraits and see a famous museum painting before going blind.

The story is a quiet one, an imitation of the life and sounds of all the things happening in their surroundings. We hear gunfire, a cello played, see snowfall on Christmas Eve, see a stunning fireworks show on Bastille Day, and get a feel for the subway passages the way the vagrants view them. It is not a story where we are going to find out much about these three, just enough so that we have a little feel of what made them vagrants. The skinhead Alex is a panhandler, a petty thief, and a street theater performer: doing fire-eating and gymnastic routines to earn some money. Hans was a night watchman for thirty years and when his family went to pieces, he became a bum.

What this reckless (it is reckless because it is not about logical people) film is about, is something that can’t easily be explained because it is a poetical vision about those who have gone over the line of sanity. It is about those who will survive only through a miracle and the good will of others, or through continuing to lead the foolish life they are leading and not retreating from their folly. This film works mostly as a visual story, its dialogue is not that relevant. We observe the madness of their lives and how love is so difficult to comprehend; but, it is the only thing that is out there that can’t be taken away from them. This could have been made as a silent film; it could be viewed like Murnau’s “Sunrise,” as the disenfranchised view the bright lights of a modern urban city for how it might corrupt those who live there.

One of the problems that held up production was that the producer died. That was followed by the breakup of the director with his lover, who happened to be the star of the film, Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient“/ “Blue“/ “Damage“). In the meantime, while the film stopped shooting, she had a few breakthrough roles and could have made more glamorous films at higher pay, but she felt committed to this project and did finish the film. It took three years for the film to be made and then some considerable more time to get a U.S. release date (reportedly because the producers charged exorbitant fees for its release, in the hope of making up for the high production costs). Commercially the film bombed, but critically it received many great reviews. There were also quite a few negative ones, and the one from Vincent Canby in the N.Y. Times really hurt. It delayed the release date in America. The ones who hated this film, seemed to really hate it.

I appreciated the film, finding it to be a startling and compelling effort, despite its lugubrious tone and slow-pace. It, nevertheless, had a unique way of being sensible and romantic.

Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)

Reviewed on 3/5/2000 Grade: A-